President Trump’s campaign has far less money than advisers had once anticipated for the final stretch of the presidential election, as rosy revenue projections failed to materialize, leaving aides scrambling to address a severe financial disadvantage against Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the race’s most crucial juncture.
To close the budgetary shortfall, Mr. Trump has slashed millions of dollars in previously reserved television ads and detoured from the battleground states that will decide the election for a stop in California last weekend to refill his campaign coffers. He has also tried to jump-start his online fund-raising with increasingly aggressive tactics, sending out as many as 14 email solicitations in a day.
But Mr. Biden still entered October with nearly triple the campaign money as Mr. Trump — $177 million to $63.1 million — and is leveraging that edge to expand the battleground map just as Mr. Trump is forced to retrench.
Despite raising more than $1.5 billion in tandem with the Republican Party since 2019, Mr. Trump is now in the same financial straits as he was four years ago, when Hillary Clinton had roughly double the money he did. The financial pinch has engulfed his advisers and party officials in something of an internal blame game after years of bragging about their fund-raising prowess, according current and former campaign and administration officials. Republican allies, meanwhile, are wondering where all the money went.
“Campaigns that are trailing two weeks before the election, there is always a lot of finger pointing,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “And asking where the money went is always the first question.”
Last week, senior Trump campaign officials huddled with the Republican National Committee leadership in Washington, D.C., to hash out spending plans for the race’s final days, a discussion that included the possibility of taking out a loan or delaying payment on some bills past Election Day to fully fund operations, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Perhaps nothing underscores how acute and unexpected the budget situation is for Mr. Trump as much as his television ad budget. His cash on hand entering October was $40 million less than the $104.4 million he had previously reserved in television ads for the final five weeks, according to Advertising Analytics data. So earlier this week, Mr. Trump’s campaign and the R.N.C. announced that the party would begin funding coordinated ads in many key states, a move that lessens the financial squeeze on Mr. Trump.
Over all, the data show Mr. Trump’s TV ad spending has shrunk by $23 million since Sept. 20. In that same time period, Mr. Biden has expanded his reservations by $99 million.
“Every campaign makes fall ad reservations months in advance and adjusts them as Election Day approaches — including the Biden campaign,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, who added that a final $55 million push announced this week with the R.N.C. was “a 40 percent increase over our initial plans.”
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“The president will have all the resources he needs to win re-election,” he added.
Top Trump officials are banking on their investment in door-knocking and ground operations to lift the president, especially after Mr. Biden spent months forgoing such activities because of the pandemic.
After fears of a looming cash crunch first surfaced last month, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that “if more money is needed, which I doubt it will be,” he would “put it up!” Yet Mr. Trump has so far donated nothing to his re-election campaign, even as it has spent millions on his private businesses, and some top aides are reluctant to directly request that he dip into his own bank account.
He is still racing to collect cash. On Thursday, Mr. Trump will headline a fund-raiser with major donors before the final presidential debate in Nashville. He took the trip to California last weekend. And last month he flew to his Bedminster club in New Jersey to collect checks before the September fund-raising deadline, even after a top aide, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Mr. Trump’s campaign is not broke. The $63.1 million he had on hand entering October is nearly what Mrs. Clinton had four years ago. The campaign said no loans or deferrals had occurred this time. The problem is that his campaign initially presumed it would have far more money, and Bill Stepien, who replaced Brad Parscale as campaign manager over the summer, has spent recent months imposing cost-control measures to prevent a bigger shortfall.
And being outspent in the final stretch once again — this time as an incumbent — was part of what the Trump campaign was initially built to avoid.
At the core of the financial troubles for Mr. Trump is what kind of funds his campaign and the party have in the bank. He announced that he entered October with $251 million combined with the party — seemingly a huge amount. But much of that money is tied up in party accounts and cannot legally be used to fund most core campaign operations. The Biden campaign and party entered October together with $432 million.
To help inject more money into the campaign itself, Trump aides and the R.N.C. quietly revised the formula for sharing proceeds from its joint committee for small donations, bumping Mr. Trump’s campaign share from an initial 75 percent last year to 95 percent as of August.
The president calls his campaign funds “my money,” according to current and former administration officials.
In private, Mr. Trump has continued to blame Mr. Parscale for spending decisions, despite the fact that the former campaign manager has said he made them all with the approval of the Trump family. Mr. Parscale’s allies argue he has been unfairly scapegoated for spending signed off on by other officials.
Mr. Parscale has told former colleagues he believed the campaign needed to consistently stay on television through Election Day, and that he had a plan he was executing, and wasn’t simply winging it.
Others working with the campaign have said Mr. Parscale had no clear overall budget plan that was relayed to top officials, and that expenditures were simply approved case by case. In Mr. Trump’s orbit, Mr. Parscale worked particularly closely with Ronna McDaniel, the party chairwoman, and Mr. Stepien’s relationship with her is seen as less close, with last week’s meeting aimed to bridge any divide.
How Mr. Biden, who had struggled to raise money during the primary, wound up so far ahead of Mr. Trump is a testament to his own campaign’s historic fund-raising, both among small donors online and big donors writing $100,000-plus checks, as well as the fervent desire of Democrats to send Mr. Trump packing.
Mr. Trump’s hauls are big compared to past races, too. The $247.8 million he raised in concert with the party in September would have been a record before 2020. That high level of fund-raising has raised questions about his team’s spending habits, given the current cash situation.
The Trump campaign and the R.N.C. have been opaque about some of the $1.2 billion spent since 2019. About half the money, more than $611 million, went to a single limited liability company, American Made Media Consultants, linked to Trump officials and created to place television and digital ads. It was the subject of a recent complaint for intentionally obscuring the real destination of the money, which has included payments to the partners of Mr. Trump’s adult sons, Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle.
Under Mr. Parscale, the Trump campaign had promised that heavy early spending would build a massive trove of email addresses and phone numbers that would pay off many times over.
But new Federal Election Commission filings vividly show the strain on Mr. Trump’s fund-raising operation and the extent to which his early and much-hyped investments in online fund-raising have stalled. In the last three months, Mr. Trump’s main fund-raising committee with the R.N.C. to raise small contributions burned through money at an alarmingly high rate, spending more than 75 cents of every dollar it raised — $181 million spent to raise $235.7 million.
The Trump campaign has been criticized for spending heavily earlier in 2020, including on a pricey Super Bowl ad nearly nine months before Election Day, and for ads that aired during the spring and summer months, before voters were paying close attention.
In October 2019, the Trump campaign made an expensive gambit a year out from the election, airing an ad nationally during Game 7 of the World Series. It was a financial show of force and the campaign declared it was “on offense.”
A year later, as millions of Americans were voting, it was the Biden campaign that seized the World Series stage. On Tuesday it debuted a minute-long national ad narrated by the actor Sam Elliott that also went viral on social media.
Mr. Trump’s campaign and his shared party committees continue to spend on Trump properties, including one September payment to the Trump Hotel Collection of $640,476.
The campaign itself also spent more than $1 million on companies that provide chartered plane services in September, even though Mr. Trump travels exclusively on Air Force One. Some of the payments, which the campaign did not answer questions about, were marked as “facility rental.”
When Mr. Trump himself travels on Air Force One for political travel, the campaign must reimburse taxpayers for its use. As of the end of September, the single largest debt that Mr. Trump’s campaign owed was to the Treasury Department: $670,000.
Rachel Shorey contributed reporting.