Bernie Sanders Leads The Democratic Presidential Fundraising Pack

And four other takeaways from the 2020 Democratic primary's first-quarter numbers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leads a field of 18 Democratic Party candidates in the money chase with $18.2 million raised in the first quarter of the 2020 presidential campaign. He’s tailed by newcomers like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) with $12 million raised and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who pulled in $9.4 million.

That none of these totals particularly stands out as a testament to the divided nature of the field. There is no heir apparent to former President Barack Obama, and the Clinton couple’s domination of Democratic Party politics for the past 25 years was shattered with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. The first-quarter fundraising results provide some of the first data available to see who will emerge as the banner holder for the party and the challenger to President Donald Trump. So far this year, Trump has raised about $30 million.

Here are five takeaways from the fundraising and spending totals reported on Monday by the 15 candidates who announced prior to March 31.

Sanders’ Relative Dominance

It’s not just that Sanders raised more than anyone else in the field, it’s also that he did so while leading in essentially every other metric the candidates are considering. He has more individual donors than any other candidate and a smaller average donation. A whopping 84% of the $18 million he brought in came from donations of less than $200 ― the next closest candidate is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), with 70%. He has more than $28 million on hand, although only $18.1 million is in his main campaign account. His campaign also has signed up more than $1 million worth of monthly recurring donations, which greatly lowers the risk of a burnout. Not only is he in the lead of the money chase, he also appears to have room to grow.

Money doesn’t buy everything ― more on that in a bit ― but Sanders’ substantial early financial advantage could help him spread his message and hire organizing staff throughout the country.

Sanders’ main rival in polling, former Vice President Joe Biden, still hasn’t announced his entrance into the presidential contest, and he could challenge the Vermonter’s monetary supremacy, even if he’s unlikely to match Sanders’ popularity with small donors. And Warren; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Harris; and O’Rourke are all gunning for at least parts of Sanders’ base of liberals and young people.

Cash Rules

Tim Pawlenty. Scott Walker. These candidates weren’t just monotone Midwesterners with less charisma than a ham sandwich. They also burned through their money early, never caught fire with voters and were run out of the primaries ― broke ― months before the Iowa caucuses. That’s why it’s important to keep track of the candidates’ cash-on-hand totals and their burn rate (how much of their total raised do they spend each quarter).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), here at a fundraiser in New Hampshire on Saturday, had the second highest amount of money available among the Democratic presidential candidates on April 1, thanks to a transfer of $10.4 million from her Senate campaign.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), here at a fundraiser in New Hampshire on Saturday, had the second highest amount of money available among the Democratic presidential candidates on April 1, thanks to a transfer of $10.4 million from her Senate campaign.

Sanders, the top fundraiser, also has the most cash on hand, with $15.6 million as of March 31. He spent only 27% of what he raised. But the other cash hoarders can’t exactly say the same. Warren had $11.2 cash available at the end of March, but she had burned through 87% of what she raised, including spending $1 million that went to two top Democratic digital firms. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) had $10.1 million on hand but similarly burned through 81% of what she raised. What’s the deal?

Unlike Pawlenty and Walker, who were swing state governors, Warren and Gillibrand are senators from safe Democratic states. This allowed them to hoard money raised for their Senate campaigns and then transfer it over to fund their presidential bids. The big question for their campaigns is if they can ramp up their fundraising to build a bigger war chest as the campaign gets more expensive.

Buttigieg so far has the lowest burn rate, having spent only 9% of the $7 million he has raised.

Less Than 2008?

The last time Democrats had an open presidential primary with a large field of well-qualified candidates, way back in 2008, their top prospects raised eye-popping sums. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each raised about $26 million for the first three months of 2007. This time around, Sanders ― with a haul of $18.2 million ― is the only candidate to come close. (These totals only count direct contributions, not transfers from other committees.)

This has spurred concerns that donors are sitting on the sidelines. And they certainly are. Past presidential campaigns usually launched with the backing of big donors connected to the party apparatus. Most of the big donors who fueled the last three Democratic nominating contests have yet to pick a candidate.

Big donors sitting on the sidelines is partly due to the increased emphasis on small donations. Three candidates ― Sanders, Warren and O’Rourke ― have entirely eschewed big-donor fundraising events in pursuit of small donations. Other candidates have felt pressure to boost their own small-donor totals to prove they are true grassroots candidates.

Even without big donors fully engaged, the combined fundraising totals of the candidates in 2019 and in 2007 aren’t too far off. (There are, of course, far more candidates this time around.) The seven candidates who began their 2008 campaigns in the first three months of 2007 raised a combined total of $78.3 million. The 15 candidates that HuffPost tracked raised $77 million.

Everybody calm down.

Big Names Could Struggle To Make The Debate Stage

Andrew Yang, a former technology executive who remains a mystery to much of the American public, has collected the 65,000 individual donations necessary, under Democratic National Committee rules, to qualify for the first official Democratic debates in Miami in June. So has Buttigieg, who started 2018 as the nationally anonymous mayor of a mid-sized Midwestern city.

Who hasn’t? Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Hillary Clinton campaign vice presidential finalist who turned in some of the Democrats’ most impressive electoral performances in the GOP wave years of 2010 and 2014. Julián Castro, a former Obama Cabinet member and the most prominent Latino ever to seek the presidency. And Jay Inslee, who served in Congress for more than a decade before becoming a two-term Washington governor and is building his campaign around climate change, one of the Democratic base’s top issues. Or Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Or Gillibrand.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), here at an Iowa fundraiser Thursday, raised the second-highest total among the Democratic candidates in the first quarter of 2019, with $12 million.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), here at an Iowa fundraiser Thursday, raised the second-highest total among the Democratic candidates in the first quarter of 2019, with $12 million.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Though the campaigns still have time to reach the 65,000-donor benchmark ― and depending on the number of candidates in the field, could qualify just by pulling above 1% in multiple polls that meet the DNC’s criteria ― it’s already clear the new emphasis on grassroots fundraising might lead to a debate stage that includes some unexpected characters and leaves out some candidates who have been expected to run for president for years. Marianne Williamson, a spiritual guru who has waged an ill-fated bid for Congress, is now just 16,000 donors shy of qualifying. She actually raised more than Castro in the first quarter ― $1.5 million to $1.1 million.

Some of the elected officials who haven’t qualified yet are deploying unusual tactics to game the system. A super PAC backing Inslee spent close to $300,000 on Facebook during the first three months of the year, with many of the ads encouraging users to sign up for the Inslee campaign’s email list. Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who gave his own campaign $11 million during the first quarter, is encouraging donations by promising to personally give $2 to a charity of the donor’s choice.

“A spot on the presidential debate stage should be earned by generating real enthusiasm and inspiring Americans to give what they can to your campaign,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, the communications director for End Citizens United, of Delaney’s and Inslee’s tactics. “Governor Inslee is using a super PAC run by a top political aide to boost the number of donors to his campaign, which is a total end run around the contribution limits other candidates are abiding by.”

Beware Of Over-interpretation

After the political class’ experiences with polling in 2016 ― Remember Jeb Bush’s early leads in polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and Iowa? ― pundits are at least somewhat likely to rely on early polls for their takes and tweets. But the first quarter’s fundraising numbers, as some of the first hard data we have on how candidates are performing, are almost certain to be over-interpreted, with some candidates prematurely thrown in the grave and others declared front-runners.

“I understand the desire to get caught up with the one number you can hold on to right now, but that’s not what I’m thinking about every day,” Addisu Demise, Booker’s campaign manager, said on a conference call with reporters last week, emphasizing that the primary campaign is likely to be a long struggle.

Money, as we also learned in 2016, doesn’t always win elections ― especially not presidential elections, where voters are just as likely to find out about candidates from earned television and news coverage as they are from paid advertising. The best evidence probably comes from the 2016 GOP primary, where the more than $100 million Bush raised for his super PAC did little good in comparison to Trump’s dominance of news coverage.

“Is the candidate with the most money guaranteed to win? Absolutely not,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who was a senior communications aide to Clinton’s campaign. “And especially not if the other candidates are getting earned and social media that eclipses you.”

While Bush’s high-cost flop is remembered from 2016, he wasn’t the only big spender to lose that year. Down the stretch of the 2016 primary, Sanders’ campaign spent nearly $122 million. Clinton’s campaign? Just $80 million.

This article has been updated to include an additional candidate’s report.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article identified Jesse Ferguson as Hillary Clinton’s communications director in 2016. He was a senior communications aide on her campaign.