2020 Presidential Campaign Fundraising (and Spending) Are on Track to Smash Records
The 2020 presidential election season has been a hot one for fundraising and may be headed for a record, according to a Fortune analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
By the end of the 2012 election, when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney squared off and presidential campaign fundraising set an historical record, the money raised by all candidates came close to $1.4 billion, according to FEC data.
But by December 2011, the total was only $280.9 million—a far cry from the $653.8 million that 2020 candidates have already raised by September 2019, three months earlier in the current cycle and before the the deep-pocketed Michael Bloomberg had joined the race. (Reporting is released two months in arrears and publicly available 2019 figures only go through September.)
Spending is also on a tear. Through December 2011, the 2012 campaigns had spent $168.9 million. This time around, candidates have already shelled out $445.2 million by the end of September.
In the money
Some of the same dynamics that were in play in 2012 are at work today. “Like 2012, you had an incumbent president and a contested primary,” says David Jones, a professor of political science at James Madison University.
“To me, the more interesting part of the story is that Donald Trump has decided to embrace the advantages of incumbency in raising money,” Jones says. “Democrats are so far reluctant to take any outside money, super PACs and beyond. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have set that standard. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, they’re going to have their hands tied behind their backs.”
The Trump campaign’s $165.3 million leads the donations race. All other Republican candidates pulled in a combined total of $12.3 million.
However, Democrats together have far outstripped him with $475.6 million raised. The chart below shows the Democratic party’s top five fundraising presidential campaigns and the amounts they’ve raised through September 2019.
This doesn’t count so-called dark money raised by specially-formed non-profits that don’t have to reveal their donors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics and its site OpenSecrets.org, groups have raised close to $20.5 million for all candidates together, with the vast bulk of that, $19.2 million, raised for Trump.
But money is not a guarantee to ring up votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign brought in $586.7 million, compared to Trump’s $350.7 million.
Candidates’ committees bring in most of their war chest from a combination of sources. The bulk come from direct contributions of individuals and transfers of money from other committees. (A committee is any political fundraising group authorized by the FEC.)
For 2020, the Trump committee so far has brought in about $58 million in individual contributions, 57.9% of which are small donations totaling less than $200, typically taken as a sign of the degree of grassroots support.
The biggest block of money, though—$101.4 million—are transfers from other committees that don’t show a breakdown (a few additional million have come from smaller categories).
The Sanders campaign received $12.7 million from other committees. The direct contributions were $61.5 million—more than Trump—with 69.6% being small.
Warren brought in $10.4 million from other committees, leaving $49.8 million—64.2% donations under $200—directly received from individuals.
Buttigieg received nothing from other committees and 47.5% of his individual contributions were small. As for Steyer, of the $49.6 million he received, nearly $47.6 million came from his own pocket. (Out of the top five fund-raising Democrats and Trump, Warren was the only other candidate contributing her own money: $5,777.50, in her case.)
One surprise was Joe Biden. Often touted as the frontrunner, he was far behind in total contributions (with nothing from committees) and in small donations, which were only 35.1% of individual contributions.
And the money keeps rolling out
If the candidates are raising a lot of money, they’re also spending heavily.
Sanders was the only Democrat of the top five who transferred money ($4.6 million) to other committees. Steyer’s campaign has paid out close to everything the candidate donated.
The Trump campaign’s disbursements of $89.7 million through September 2019 were more than half of its receipts. Of them, $1.9 million went to Trump’s own companies, a continuing issue. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the amounts spent at Trump properties or with his companies.
While billionaires going back to Ross Perot in 1992 have run before, none have had the collection of businesses that could so readily provide services to, and make money from, a political campaign.
“I’ve never come across something similar,” Jones says. Certainly “not in the modern campaign finance history, which isn’t very long. There were some funny shenanigans with the Nixon campaign, especially in 1972. But campaign finance law barely existed.”
The campaign has paid $1,890,823.29 to various Trump companies—hotels, golf clubs, restaurants, and commercial office space. However, that is far behind the $13,238,454.50 the campaign for the 2016 presidency paid out to Trump’s business interests by the end of that year.
A big reason for the difference could be explained by air travel. In the 2016 campaign, a company called Tag Air, which runs Trump’s private plane, received more than $8.7 million from the campaign. Through September in the 2020 campaign, only $2,745.50 was spent with Tag.
It may be that Trump, as president, has taken Air Force One to campaign stops and done less traveling. There was a total of nearly $1.5 million paid to the U.S. Treasury, which would collect reimbursements to the federal government for use of Air Force One. All but two of the individual disbursement records mentioned travel and almost always air travel. The remaining ones were for taxes and totaled $38,966.72.
Fortune asked the Trump campaign to provide a tally of campaign plane trips taken for 2016 and trips for this election cycle. That would allow for a calculation of an average cost per trip to see if the charges paid to Tag Air for Trump’s own 747 were equivalent or not to use of Air Force One; currently there isn’t enough information to determine that. The campaign did not respond.
Trump Tower Commercial represented rental on one of Trump’s properties, presumably for office space. The spending was $2,011,743.74 for the 2016 campaign, and $1,228,037.72 currently. Fortune asked the campaign how much space it takes in the property, and what percentage of occupancy it represents to get a sense of whether campaign funds were being used for market-rate rent and how significant the space was to the building, but did not receive a response.
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