A Game of Numbers: Lessons Learned From the Second Quarter

September 2, 2019

 

July 15th marked the deadline for 2020 presidential candidates to file their second quarter fundraising numbers. Money, more so than polling numbers and media buzz, is often the driving indicator of the long term viability of a campaign. There are a few key takeaways from these second quarter fundraising totals. First, President Donald Trump’s impressive quarter adds to his already financially strong reelection campaign, and comparisons to former President Barack Obama reelection campaign in 2012 show promising signs for him. Second, a top tier of several candidates has clearly emerged from the crowded field of eighteen Democrats in the race. Finally, the sources of the candidates’ fundraising totals reveal much about each candidate’s campaign strategy and strength.

 

Following the second quarter, President Trump’s total campaign funds stand at $56.8 million, $800,000 more than former President Obama’s total at the same point in his successful reelection campaign in 2012. However, while most of Obama’s money came from individual donors, just 28% of Trump’s sum comes from small and large donors, while corporate money and fundraising efforts from the Republican fundraising committees comprise the rest. Obama pioneered online fundraising in 2008, and his success on the internet helped him develop a sizable base of individual donors. Trump has shied away from that strategy and acquires much of his money from large corporate donors and party organizations. Spending less time raising money from individuals allows him to spend more time hosting rallies around the country as he focuses his attention on voter support. 

 

Trump’s high fundraising total contrasts with another key statistic--his low 42% approval rating. Oddly enough, Obama’s approval rating was exactly the same at this stage of his reelection campaign. Trump’s controversial policies and statements create a ceaseless cycle of negative press coverage, shaping public opinion. He also has taken flak for the recent deal between Republicans and Democrats to raise the debt ceiling until 2021. Similarly, at this stage of his reelection bid in 2011, Obama was undergoing perhaps the least popular period of his presidency with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and messy end of the Iraq War. The parallels do not end there. On August 2, 2011, Democrats and Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling until 2013...sound familiar? The similarities between the Obama and Trump reelection campaign at this stage demonstrate that Trump’s odds of reelection are higher than many might think.

 

Additionally, fundraising totals reveal that several Democratic hopefuls have emerged ahead of the pack. Leading the charge is Senator Bernie Sanders, who until this point has raised a total of $46.3 million. Following him is Senator Elizabeth Warren with $35.6 million raised, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at $32.3 million, Senator Kamala Harris at $25.0 million, and former Vice President Joe Biden at $22.0 million. Kamala Harris had the weakest quarter of the bunch, raising about half of her $25 million total. The closest candidate to joining this group is Senator Cory Booker, whose $4.5 million raised last quarter adds to his total of $12.4 million. The other candidates in the race trail by large margins. In a primary race with slight ideological distinctions, these fundraising totals elevate the group of individuals that are more likely to go the distance. Running a presidential campaign requires an enormous amount of money-- Secretary Clinton and President Trump together spent over a billion dollars in the 2016 race. Candidates must also continue to raise money and reach a threshold of donors to participate in the debates. Debates are crucial for promoting their platform and increasing voter recognition, so the candidates who miss out on the opportunity usually drop out as a result. Therefore, fundraising totals can be used as a barometer for which candidates are more likely to endure the longest. Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris, and Biden could find themselves as the only names on the ballot in the first primary in New Hampshire next year. However, a few long shot candidates may also survive until that point, so the first primary ballot could contain up to 10 names.

 

The sources of their fundraising totals also speaks volumes about the way the candidates present themselves and run their campaigns. There has been a recent emphasis in the Democratic party on receiving the support of individual donors and lower average donation amounts rather than accepting large sums from wealthy individuals or corporations. Many candidates believe that politicians who solicit large donations are beholden to special interests in Washington D.C. rather than the American electorate. The current contribution limit per primary cycle is set at $2,800 by the FEC, and donors can contribute up to another $2,800 after the primaries. Every Democratic candidate has pledged not to accept corporate PAC money, and the vast majority are also turning down donations from the fossil fuel industry and federal lobbyists. Leading this charge is Senator Sanders, who receives 60% of his money from small donors. His average donation received is a mere $14, a number he cites when proclaiming his grassroots campaign is supported by average Americans rather than billionaires. However, although this strategy may pay off in attracting voters, it does not always pay off in the bank. Other candidates--namely Biden, Harris, and Buttigieg--have preferred to take the traditional approach to raise lots of money much more quickly. Large fundraisers hosted by wealthy individuals such as business magnates allow candidates to raise huge sums of money in just one day. The three aforementioned candidates each secured more than half of their fundraising totals from big donors, and they spend much of their time crisscrossing the country to attend these money-making fundraisers. While voters may not appreciate this strategy, it ultimately provides the candidates with the necessary resources to continue their campaigns. President Trump, on the other hand, has raised more than 70% of his current fundraising total from big donors and corporate money. This demonstrates that his concern is not saving face with voters by rejecting special interests, but raising as much money as possible to gain an edge in his reelection bid. 

 

With under six months until the first Democratic primary, the future chances of the majority of the eighteen looks decidedly improbable. Exploring the fundraising totals and sources of the candidates, as well as using empirical data from the past, reveals much about the direction of the 2020 presidential race. A cross comparison to President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 shows encouraging signs for President Trump to feel he can do the same next year. Additionally, fundraising totals from the crowded field of Democrats vying for president reveal a group of five frontrunners with the best odds of securing the nomination--Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris, and Biden. Finally, the sources of the candidate’s donations convey marked differences in campaign strategy, and candidates ultimately cultivate their image from this. 

 

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