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Gold cards and red hats: A Trumpian approach to fundraising

Donald Trump is underwriting his presidential bid by selling the Donald Trump lifestyle - and campaign finance records show it is working.

By: | Washington | Published: September 20, 2016 2:49 PM
Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Reuters) Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Reuters)

Donald Trump is underwriting his presidential bid by selling the Donald Trump lifestyle – and campaign finance records show it is working.

For the low price of $25, you can snag a Trump Gold Card emblazoned with your name or join a campaign ”Board of Directors” that comes with a personalized certificate. For $30, there’s Trump’s signature hats – billed as ”the most popular product in America.” Supporters can elevate themselves to ”big league” by ponying up $184 for a signed, ”now out of print” copy of Trump’s book, ”The Art of the Deal.”

There’s a catch to some of these merchandizing claims. There is no evidence the board of directors exists. ”The Art of the Deal” is still in print, available for $9.34 in paperback. And the new campaign edition of the book is signed by an autopen, not Trump, as noted in the solicitation’s fine print.

Regardless, the appeals have paid off.

Trump’s campaign says it has 2.1 million donors despite having just begun fundraising in earnest three months ago. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has been amassing a donor rolodex for decades, has 2.3 million contributors, her campaign says. People giving $200 or less make up about half of his campaign funds, according to federal fundraising reports through July. For Clinton, those small gifts account for about 19 percent.

”His brand appeals to quite a number of people,” said John Thompson, digital fundraising director for Ted Cruz’s Republican presidential campaign. ”It’s smart for him to use it for fundraising. The celebrity factor builds a natural donor community on its own, without him having to do too much.”

Hyperbolic campaign marketing is a natural fit for Trump, who has puffed up the value of what he sold throughout his business career. At times, Trump has sold golf memberships or Trump University seminars at a ”discount” from an imaginary, inflated price; and he has declared condo projects close to selling out when in reality they were struggling.

”You want to say it in the most positive way possible,” Trump once told attorneys who asked him whether he had ever lied about his properties to sell them. ”I’m no different from a politician running for office.”

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that his campaign has adopted that same approach, outspending Clinton on campaign merchandise while running a brisk retail operation that helps him raise the money for, among other things, crucial get-out-the-vote efforts and advertising to spread his message.

Trump’s appeals for smaller contributions are reminiscent of Bernie Sanders, whose signature line in the Democratic primary this year was that his campaign was paid for by $27 donations.

Sanders’ digital fundraiser, Michael Whitney, questioned whether Trump’s small donor haul would continue since it does not appear the campaign has done much to get email addresses that could be turned into fresh batches of new potential donors.

”This feels more like a battering ram than a well-thought-out digital program,” Whitney said.

One of Trump’s most frequent fundraising offers has been a ”gold card” that identifies the holder as an Executive Member for a ”one-time induction fee.”

”In the past, I have asked supporters for a one-time induction fee of $100. But because of your outstanding generosity to date, I am only asking you to make a $35 contribution,” the email asks.

The Associated Press found no evidence of an online solicitation in which the card was sold for the undiscounted price of $100.

The gold card offer is reminiscent of a Trump Visa card that became available in 2004. In a press release for it, Trump pitched it as ”the best deal” and warned declining it ”could get you fired.”

Trump also seeks to make would-be donors feel like part of the campaign. Several emails have sought ”campaign advice,” asked for help with debate preparation and even offered people the chance to join a campaign ”board of directors.”

There’s no evidence such a board exists, and the campaign did not respond to questions about it.

But the gold card and executive board membership gimmicks are getting results, said Tom Sather, senior director of research at the email data solutions firm Return Path. The firm measures emails much the way Nielsen measures television viewership, by extrapolating from a large panel of study participants.

Emails from the Trump campaign and Trump joint committees with the Republican Party have an average open rate of 11 percent, Sather said. The 10 gold card-related emails had a far higher open rate of 18 percent, and executive board emails had an open rate of 19 percent, he said.

”These kinds of offers intrigue people and make them feel exclusive and special,” he said.

Ever the marketer, Trump has also dominated the campaign swag front.

In April, May and June, Trump spent about $3 million on merchandise that’s then sold to donors, an AP review of campaign finance reports found. Clinton’s operation spent about $2 million in the same time period.

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