2020 Presidential Fundraising: Early first quarter numbers fall flat compared to Clinton, Obama

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This article will be updated as Democratic candidates announce their first quarter fundraising.

Every Democratic contender has ramped up the importance of their fundraising haul for the first few months of the 2020 cycle, characterizing fundraising totals as the barometer for the viability of their respective campaigns. As the first quarter FEC deadline passed, some candidates were more eager than others to unveil their results.

Final fundraising tallies from January through March won’t come out until April 15 when candidates officially file their numbers with the FEC. That didn’t stop several triumphant Democratic contenders from releasing their estimated fundraising tallies early:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): $18.2 million from 525,000 donors
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.): $12 million from 138,000 donors
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas): $9.4 million from 218,000 contributions (number of donors hasn’t been specified yet)
  • South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg: $7 million from 158,550 donors
  • New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang: $1.7 million from 80,000 donors

The question is: are these numbers impressive? Historical comparisons are difficult, as neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump had declared by this point in 2016. One-time frontrunner Jeb Bush hadn’t officially thrown his hat in the ring either.

The 2008 presidential showdown is the most recent race where a large field of candidates declared early and reported fundraising in the first quarter. At first glance, the 2020 field appears to be lagging behind.

Obama’s massive $25.7 million haul was a reported as a massive victory for the Illinois senator and a major blow to Clinton, who had hoped to crush her competition in total fundraising. On the other side, John McCain’s campaign expressed disappointment in raising $13 million compared to Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani’s respective $21 million and $15 million hauls.

Considering the record-breaking amount of cash raised by Democratic congressional candidates in 2018, the relatively paltry fundraising numbers for 2020 contenders suggest Democratic-leaning donors haven’t yet committed to a clear favorite in such a large field of candidates. One Democratic megadonor, Susie Tompkins Buell, already appears to have second thoughts on her preferred candidate, hosting a fundraiser for Buttigieg after endorsing Harris.

Then there’s the fact that the early favorite in 2020 polls, former Vice President Joe Biden, hasn’t declared his candidacy yet, further disincentivizing potential donors to back a candidate. Interestingly enough, Biden failed to raise substantial dollars in the first quarter of the 2008 presidential election cycle. 

Sanders can safely call the first quarter a win, as he raised significantly more than Harris and reportedly has $28 million cash on hand after transferring $14 million from his Senate and 2016 presidential campaign committees. Plus, he did it with more small donors than any other candidate so far, leading the pack among the sought-after demographic.

As she was first elected in 2016, Harris doesn’t have the same cash on hand advantage. She has just $1.3 million to transfer to her presidential campaign. Still, her campaign reported receiving 98 percent of contributions in amounts smaller than $100.

O’Rourke raised $9.4 million in just 18 days, giving him the best per-day average of any candidate. One potential cause for concern, however, is that the former Senate candidate reported raising most of that — $6.1 million — in his first day.

It’s not surprising Buttigieg announced his fundraising totals first. The $7 million number is a big one for any presidential candidate to raise in one quarter, especially for a previously unknown mayor of a relatively small city who is still operating in the exploratory committee phase.

Yang said roughly 95 percent of his quarterly contributions came after Feb. 11, suggesting that his campaign could report more robust numbers next quarter. Yang is the only Democrat to have fundraising numbers from 2018 — he raised $354,477 before the end of the year.

The silence from candidates who haven’t announced fundraising numbers typically speaks volumes, no matter the election cycle. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sent out an email thanking her supporters but said she still hadn’t received contributions from 65,000 individual donors. She has north of $10 million leftover from her 2018 Senate campaign. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has been silent on his numbers and has more than $4 million from his Senate committee.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced they had hit their fundraising goals but did not release numbers. Warren’s finance director reportedly resigned over objection to Warren’s policy of rejecting fundraisers, a major source of money for almost all candidates not named Bernie Sanders. Warren does has $11 million left over from her 2018 Senate campaign to play with regardless of her fundraising haul.

Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney and Julian Castro are also among major candidates who haven’t revealed their fundraising hauls just yet.  

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