7 winners from the first big presidential fundraising reports

Bernie Sanders at a Fox News town hall on April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and more.

Bernie Sanders’s powerful small-donor machine is back up and running, Kamala Harris is winning among big money givers, and Pete Buttigieg has established himself as a contender.

The fundraising filings for the first real quarter of the 2020 presidential campaign are in, and they show a race in which several candidates have set themselves apart from the crowded Democratic field — and others have used alternative strategies to supplement weaker fundraising hauls. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, transferred $10.4 million from her Senate account to her presidential campaign.

When it comes to presidential campaigns, money isn’t everything, as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton will tell you. But campaigns do need money to run advertisements and pay organizers. And in this long year before 2020 primary voting actually begins, the political world uses fundraising totals alongside polling to gauge candidates’ strength. Here are some winners from the first quarter numbers.

Bernie Sanders raised the most and remains a small-donor powerhouse

The question for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) campaign as 2019 began was whether the small-donor fundraising base that powered his rise when he ran against Clinton in 2016 would remain enthusiastic now that Sanders was in a more crowded field of contenders.

So far, it seems the answer is yes. Sanders raised easily the most of any Democrat in the race so far, with $18.1 million. And 84 percent of that fundraising is from small donations (meaning, it’s in “unitemized” contributions of $200 or less).

Indeed, Sanders’s small donor haul of $15.2 million nearly triples that of any other Democrat. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke came next behind him with $5.5 million (though he only entered the race near the end of the quarter).

It’s worth pointing out that this $18.1 million raised only somewhat tops the $15 million Sanders raised during his first quarter after announcing his campaign in 2015 — when he was comparatively less well known — and is well below what he raised in later quarters in that race. But it’s easily enough to put him above his rivals in the 2020 Democratic field.

Kamala Harris combined big and small money to become the top non-Bernie fundraiser

Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) fundraising of $12 million puts her in second place in the Democratic field, behind Sanders. And currently, she is clearly the candidate with the strongest support among big donors. Harris raised $7.6 million in itemized contributions ($200 or more), nearly twice as much as any other Democrat running.

Overreliance on the traditional fundraising model of “hold glitzy events at which you get rich people to max out their contributions” could be politically risky in today’s Democratic Party. But Harris managed to supplement her big donation haul with $4.4 million in small donations too.

That number is of course nowhere near Sanders’s $15.2 million, but it’s competitive with everyone else atop the Democratic field (O’Rourke raised $5.5 million from small donors, Buttigieg raised $4.5 million, Warren raised $4.2 million, and everyone else raised significantly less).

Pete Buttigieg made clear he’s a contender

A little over one month ago, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was a complete unknown. But he’s clearly had the best first quarter of any lesser-known Democratic candidate — rising to third place in several recent polls (both of early states and nationally) and joining the pack of noteworthy candidates behind Biden and Sanders.

That surge was evident in his fundraising, too: Buttigieg’s $7.1 million first-quarter haul made him the fourth-best fundraiser in the Democratic field, behind only Sanders, Harris, and O’Rourke (Biden hasn’t begun fundraising yet). Buttigieg’s campaign said they had about 158,000 unique donors, and 64 percent of his fundraising came from small-dollar donations.

In particular, the fact that Buttigieg’s fundraising picked up late in the quarter (after a breakout CNN town hall appearance in mid-March helped introduce him to a national audience) could be a promising sign for the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city.

Joe Biden didn’t see anyone rack up an astonishing cash lead

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has led most polls both nationally and in early primary states so far this year, has not yet begun his campaign and started fundraising himself. But Biden’s decision to sit out the first quarter was a risk — if other candidates caught fire in fundraising, they could have built up a formidable cash advantage that would make it quite difficult for Biden to catch up.

For instance, in the first quarter of 2007, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised more than $25 million for their respective presidential campaigns. This time around, no individual candidate came all that close to hitting that number.

The top fundraiser, Sanders, fell well short with $18 million in contributions, and after him there are steep drop-offs to Harris ($12 million) and the rest of the field ($9 million or less each). So it’s clear there’s space in the field for Biden — though he will have some catching up to do, since Sanders, for instance, has $15 million cash on hand. What’s not yet clear is how Biden will perform, in both fundraising and the larger campaign, if he does enter the race.

Elizabeth Warren had money saved up for a rainy day — and she needed it

The conventional wisdom is that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) first fundraising quarter (in which she said she’d forego any big-dollar fundraising events) was disappointing considering the once-lofty expectations for her candidacy, and signals big trouble for her campaign. She spent the most of any Democrat ($5.2 million), and she didn’t raise much more than that in new contributions ($6 million). Campaign finance pros will tell you that means her “burn rate” (her spending as a percentage of her new donations) is an alarmingly high 87 percent. Doom! Disaster!

But there’s something else Warren did: She moved $10.4 million she’d previously raised for her Senate campaign account over to her presidential account. When that hefty transfer is taken into consideration, Warren ends the quarter with $11.2 million cash on hand. That’s the second-highest in the Democratic field, behind only Sanders. (Kirsten Gillibrand, whose fundraising was half of Warren’s, pulled a similar move, transferring $9.6 million from her Senate account.)

So despite all the hyperventilation, the lights are not about to go out in the Warren campaign. Yes, her first-quarter fundraising and “burn rate” weren’t good, and she likely needs to improve them.

But Warren’s smart decision last year to plan ahead and save that extra $10.4 million means she’ll have the time she needs to try and make that improvement happen. And even if she is forced to cut back on spending or staff eventually, she wouldn’t be the first candidate to rebound from such a move (John McCain, for instance, pulled that off in the 2008 Republican primaries).

John Delaney’s consultants win because he is putting up lots of his own money

It was all the way back in 2017 that then-Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) announced he would run for president and began campaigning in the early states. Since then, he hasn’t made much of a dent in the polls — he’s stuck in the bottom tier of candidates.

But Delaney is a wealthy man, and his first-quarter filings reveal that he loaned more than $11 million to his campaign this year — which will leave him with more cash on hand ($10.5 million) than any other candidate except Sanders and Warren. Who knows if all that money will help Delaney actually improve in the polls, but the fact that he’s willing to shell out so much is certainly good news for his consultants and campaign staff.

Donald Trump is set to raise tons of cash while Democrats battle each other

As for the current president, his own reelection campaign has been up and running for over two years now. And unsurprisingly for an incumbent who’s quite popular within his party, Donald Trump raised far more than any Democratic candidate in the first quarter of this year — about $39 million, when totals from his campaign and two affiliated fundraising committees are combined. That’s significantly less than the combined Democratic field’s fundraising of $84 million, but those Democrats will be spending most of that money against each other.

Trump is expected to easily win the GOP nomination (though he will face at least one challenger, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld). But perhaps the most encouraging sign for him is that individual candidates’ fundraising on the Democratic side remains comparatively tepid, and that the field as a whole remains divided. This poses the prospect that Trump could keep stockpiling a massive general election war chest while Democrats battle through a long slog of a primary.

Author: Andrew Prokop

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