Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has prided himself on not needing traditional paid television ads. By May, he had spent $18.5 million on advertising — substantially less than Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, slightly less than John Kasich.
As NPR's headline writers put it, "Sanders has spent the most on ads, but Trump has spent best." In lieu of a massive ad budget, Trump instead overwhelmed his foes by amassing nearly $2 billion in free media by mid-March.
The pattern has continued in the general election. By June, Clinton was outspending Trump 15-to-1 on ads. She's up on the air in swing states and during the Olympics, Trump is not. But he's still dominating the headlines.
"I don't even need commercials, if you want to know the truth," Trump said at a campaign rally earlier this year. "Why do I need these commercials?"
Here's the answer: while the pattern of Trump dominating earned media even as he eschews heavy ad spending has repeated itself, the results from the primary have not. The businessman is now trailing Clinton by as much as 15 points nationally and is losing in every battleground state.
The gaffes that are killing Trump — or at least extending Clinton's convention bounce — are overwhelmingly coming via the free media platforms he is relying on to get his message out.
It was in an interview with the Washington Post that he touched off a week's worth of stories about Republican disunity by refusing to endorse Paul Ryan, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, only to in effect walk his comments back during Friday night's Green Bay rally.
It was on Twitter that Trump first picked a fight Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American serviceman killed in action in Iraq. He repeated his complaints about Khan's "vicious" attacks in an interview with a Columbus, Ohio television station.
Right now, Trump needs to do two things: get his message out unfiltered by the media and drive up Clinton's negatives. The most disturbing thing from his perspective about the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll isn't that he's losing by 8 points. It's that Clinton has gone from a net 17 points negative before the convention to just 6 points negative now.
Trump can't do either of those things through the TV news. He's not disciplined enough to stick to a script throughout his rallies and if he somehow developed that skill, those events would become too boring for regular television broadcast. Formal speeches are nice and necessary, but he's not good enough a teleprompter orator for those to change many minds.
Even if those problems could be fixed, the media will still decide what the headlines are from those events. They will never simply transmit Trump's intended message the way an ad would and frankly they shouldn't. Trump has enough trouble staying on message, ceding control in this manner only makes matters worse.
The novelty of Trump has worn off and as more traditional Republican nominees find, the mainstream media coverage is getting more hostile. Outside of a few sympathetic outlets, Trump is barely getting treated better by the conservative press.
Some of Trump's negative headlines are self-inflicted, others like the baby at the rally are bogus. But he can't expect them to go away. Trump is dealing with something worse than liberal media bias. A high percentage of the media across the political spectrum views him as badly out of the mainstream, perhaps even threatening to the country, and therefore unworthy of the same nominally even-handed treatment afforded most normal presidential candidates.
You can argue whether this viewpoint is justified or not. You can also debate whether this is a judgment call reporters should be allowed to make. The bottom line is that many of them do feel this way, and even hold some feelings of guilt that Trump was treated too kindly during the primaries by media outlets looking for ratings and clicks.
Expecting people who feel this way to serve as effective mouthpieces for your campaign is political suicide. Even in an interview with someone trying to be fair, the candidate has no control of what questions will be asked and controversy will always be the selling point or takeaway of the show.
Just going on friendly talk shows like Sean Hannity's isn't the answer either. There simply aren't enough such shows and the people watching Hannity are already likely to be Trump voters. Trump has fallen too far behind in the polls where simply motivating his base to turn out can get the job done.
The last time Trump led Clinton was after the Republican convention. What is a party convention? Essentially an extended television commercial for the nominee. The proceedings in Cleveland weren't perfect, but they presented Trump's pitch in a favorable light and his acceptance speech contained a tighter version of the argument for his candidacy than his normal speeches.
Trump shouldn't delude himself. National Republicans cut Bob Dole, whom they liked, loose in 1996 and concentrated on preserving their congressional majorities instead. They won't hesitate to do the same to Trump, whom they don't like. The high number of Senate races in battleground states this year is probably the only reason they haven't already. The Republican National Committee is furnishing Trump's ground game.
Advertising would do more to reassure the party that Trump is actually trying to win the presidency than his 11th-hour Ryan endorsement. Trump's relationship with the Republican establishment has been purely transactional. If he looks like he is willing to do what it takes to win, they will be with him. If not, they'll drop him like a hot potato.
This race isn't Trump versus Clinton. It has turned into Trump against the world. In that climate, it is malpractice to cede the airwaves to his opponents. He now has the money for commercials, even if the advertising rates will be higher than if he had acted earlier, to the Clintons' apparent alarm.
Trump may be in too deep a hole to dig himself out. We'll only know for sure if he grabs the nearest shovel: a series of hard-hitting ads that hone his populist message, remind people why they dislike Clinton and bring Republican-leaners home.