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Donald Trump Launches Ad Campaign In Early Primary States


In an unusual presidential campaign, one of the strangest facts is this. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has spent virtually nothing on advertising. That's about to change. Trump says he's prepared to spend about $2 million a week over the next month on ads in early primary states. And here to sort all this out is NPR's Scott Detrow who covers tech trends in the campaign. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good to be here.

SIEGEL: Until now, Trump has been boasting, right, about not needing to spend any money on ads?

DETROW: That's right. And unlike a lot of the boast we've heard from Donald Trump this campaign, this one is pretty much on the mark. Looking at the last campaign finance reporting period - that would be July, August and September - the Trump campaign only spent $6,000 on radio ads. That's less money than they spent printing T-shirts. Now, since then, we've seen the campaign spend more, about $200,000 - again, only on radio ads. But in presidential politics, that's really a drop in the bucket. By comparison, Jeb Bush's campaign has spent more than $30 million. That's according to numbers compiled by ABC News.

SIEGEL: So why is Trump willing to cough up the money this time?

DETROW: Well, the Trump campaign a lot of what people think they know about politics wrong. But one thing strategists agree on is that you can't just rely on free media all the way to the election. Trump's gotten a lot of attention from media outlets, from people going to these big rallies. But you really need to start getting organized as the actual elections come up. You need to make sure you've identified your supporters, and you're getting them to the polls and that they're willing to, you know, drive from their house to a caucus site on a weeknight and sit there for one or two hours to make sure they vote for you. So that means more traditional on-the-ground organizing and also more advertising.

And this is a trend that Trump, as much as he likes to boast about not spending any money, is starting to acknowledge.

Here he is earlier today in South Carolina.


DONALD TRUMP: Now I'm going to be spending. You probably saw I'm going to spend now - going to start spending a lot of money because I don't want to take any chances.

DETROW: I don't want to take any chances. That's an illusion. He realizes he needs to spend money on advertising and organizing.

SIEGEL: Trump campaign seems to be adopting some other more orthodox campaign strategies.

DETROW: That's right. According to Politico - they had a big story this week that the Trump campaign has finally gotten access, this month, to the Republican National Committee's massive database of voter information. These voter files are something we heard about earlier this month. There was that issue of the Bernie Sanders campaign looking at some of Hillary Clinton's voter information. They're really important to campaign organizing. These are big files of people's names, addresses, party affiliations, how often they vote. And campaigns use these as real building blocks to look for people, identify them, and learn more about who their likely supporters are.

In addition to accessing these databases, we've seen a lot more phone banking from the Trump campaign. They're reaching out, asking volunteers to call people in these early states.

SIEGEL: When will we know if it works? And how will we know?

DETROW: In just about a month, I guess, when the caucuses take place. One thing that political observers are looking at in Iowa - they're saying the way that the Trump campaign has really appealed to people who are turned off by the political process - if these people show up to vote, we'll know when we see a surge of new voters, people registering for the first time on caucus night at these caucus sites. So if there's a big swell of people showing up early in the evening, we'll get a sense that the Trump campaign's going to do well.

SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Detrow. Scott, thanks.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.