Where the money came from, not how much, mattered in the presidential race

President-elect Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton despite having raised and spent significantly less money. (AP Photo/John Locher)


Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the race to the White House despite raising half as much campaign cash as his Democratic opponent and benefiting from $162 million less in outside spending by groups devoted solely to helping him win. It's the first time since 1996 that the president-elect raised less money than his opponent, and the Dole v. (Bill) Clinton race was from a different era in campaign finance.

Trump played an unconventional and disorganized money game, to say the least. He didn't start actively fundraising until five months before Election Day, and relied on $66 million of his own funds -- well short of the $100 million he promised. Trump glided through the primaries benefiting from free media coverage, outlasting candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who had a super PAC that spent more than $118 million to assist him -- the early favorite to capture the GOP nomination in no small part because of his huge cash advantage. There was no clearly dominant pro-Trump super PAC, leaving donors confused, and many wealthy Republicans who might have been counted on to help a Republican nominee stayed away.

Clinton, on the other hand, was boosted by all the unlimited big money backing available in a post-Citizens United and post-McCutcheon world; her well-oiled machine was built of more than 1,000 generous bundlers, a gigantic joint fundraising venture and a far-reaching network of outside groups -- all which proved not to be enough to win the race.

"The top-line numbers don't tell the whole story," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "When you look deeper into their finances we start to see a narrative emerge" -- one that's less about how much money comes in and more about where it comes from.

Trump's ultimate strength may be rooted in the fact that he was far less reliant on large donors -- those giving more than $200. He could afford to do that given a seemingly unending stream of free media attention and the fact that he was throwing millions of his own money into the mix. While 54 percent of Clinton's campaign account was filled with donations over $200, the equivalent figure for Trump was just 15 percent. (Clinton raised $266 million in large donations, while Trump only brought in $38 million from that pool of donors.)

Instead, 27 percent of Trump's entire campaign chest came from small donors (checks of $200 or less), compared with Clinton's 18 percent. That's a low share: Obama received 32 percent of his funds from small donors and 44 percent from large ones in 2012.

"Sufficient funds won't inoculate a campaign from challenges or weaknesses," Krumholz said. "The presence of outside groups that can spend without limit means a candidate can never have too much money, but time dedicated to fundraising and mingling with the wealthy is time the candidate could be connecting with a broader audience of voters."

Clinton's campaign raised more than double the amount that Trump's did, pulling in almost $500 million to her rival's $248 million. That's without counting the hundreds of millions of dollars in help from outside entities, the majority of which -- about $245 million -- was deployed to hurt Trump. (Clinton faced $106 million in negative messaging.) The real estate mogul also benefited from almost double the positive messaging, though -- $100 million compared to Clinton's $58 million. Some of the high-rolling groups that got involved were Future45, headed by GOP operative Brian Walsh, which spent $24 million backing Trump; Tom Steyer's NextGen California Action Committee, which boosted Clinton with $13 million in outlays; and United We Can, a super PAC linked with the Service Employees International Union, which spent $12 million helping Clinton. Other familiar names made big pushes in the presidential race as well as in congressional fights, such as Women Vote! (linked with EMILY's List), which spent $11 million for Clinton, and the National Rifle Association, with $9.2 million for Trump.

Republicans kept a grip on both chambers of Congress. Democrats managed to flip one Senate seat from red to blue in Illinois but didn't secure the coveted majority they sought, even though they invested about $4 million more in those races, $271 million compared to Republicans' $267 million.The GOP concentrated more funds on the House side, spending $418 million to the Democrats' $336 million as of the last filings. 

While spending a boatload of money didn't pay off in the presidential contest, congressional candidates with the most cash on their side prevailed at a higher rate than in recent past elections: 94 percent of Senate races and 96 percent of House races went to the best-funded options. That's a slight uptick compared to past years: 92 percent of better-resourced Senate candidates won in 2014, and 70 percent in 2012, while 94 percent of better-stocked House candidates came out on top in 2014, and 92 percent in 2012. (Note: This data excludes candidates without opponents and undecided races.)

There are still exceptions to the rule, but a shrinking number: 20 candidates won their race even though they had less financial support, compared to 29 in 2014 (three in the Senate, 26 in the House) and 44 in 2012 (10 in the Senate, 34 in the House). Among the winners, Democrat Catherine Cortez-Masto in Nevada suffered the largest deficit (including campaign and outside spending combined) compared with her competitor, with $6.5 million more spent on behalf of GOP Rep. Joe Heck, yet she still managed to prevail in a hard-fought battle for retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's seat.

Twenty candidates won their races with less financial backing

*Includes candidate and outside spending

It's still the case, Trump aside, that voters don't take kindly to most candidates who primarily fund their own efforts to win office; in fact, it may be more true than ever. Only six out of 27 House candidates spending at least $500,000 of their own money won, or 18 percent. And no self-funders won a Senate berth, though nine were running. Last election saw two out of 14 self-funding Senate hopefuls win (about 14 percent), and seven out of 32 House contestants (about 22 percent).

And while small donor success may have boosted Trump's chances, that didn't always translate to congressional races. Of the 50 congressional candidates with the most funds from small donors, 28 of them won their races.

In fact, over-relying on this pool can be fatal. None of the six candidates who brought in more than 50 percent of their total campaign funds from small donors won their races. They include Tim Canova (D) in Florida, Elbert Guillory (R) in Louisiana, Lucy Flores (D) in Nevada, Paul Nehlen (R) in Wisconsin, Alan Grayson (D) in Florida and Zephyr Teachout (D) in New York.

All in all, Team Blue outspent Team Red in the presidential race to no avail. Clinton allies bested Trump backers in all three categories: candidate committees, national party committees and outside spending groups. Clinton's campaign used up almost twice the funds, $435 million to Trump's $231 million. Outside spending groups helped Clinton two and a half times more than they propped up Trump, $264 million to $102 million. It was really only close between the party committees: The Democratic National Committee spent $262 million, a mere $18 million more than its Republican equivalent.

Nope, it's not always about the money.