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The Biden campaign has less than two weeks to spend $180 million—here’s what it will do

October 23, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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The presidential election is less than two weeks away, but both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden aren’t slowing down their fundraising efforts. The infrastructure is in place, and Americans are still feeling the brunt of the seemingly ceaseless donation requests through emails, phone calls, text messaging, and even a controversial California fundraiser that caused a rift between members of the Beach Boys.

For Trump, these last-minute appeals make some sense. His campaign has been lapped three times by Biden’s in terms of cash on hand, putting him at a severe financial disadvantage and potentially unable to blitz swing-state airwaves with ads or stuff mailboxes with flyers. The Biden campaign ended September with a cool $180.6 million sitting in the bank, while Trump’s coffers were notably lighter with just $61.3 million. 

The Trump campaign insisted that it had enough to keep the lights on until Election Day but recognized that it had less money to work with. 

“The Trump campaign has all the resources we need going into the homestretch of this election,” said spokesperson Samantha Zager. “As Hillary Clinton proved when she outspent us 2 to 1 in 2016, no amount of money can buy the presidency. Voters have to be enthusiastic about casting their ballot for a candidate, and that’s only happening for President Trump.”

Biden, meanwhile, will likely end the campaign with a positive balance. But that doesn’t mean his staff will be slowing down with their spending. In the third quarter of 2020, his campaign committee outspent Trump’s by about $110 million, and things are only expected to ramp up. 

The vast majority of that, if spending patterns continue, will go toward TV and radio advertising followed by digital advertising (Facebook, YouTube, web banners) at a close second. Some of those buys are bigger than others: a 60-second ad narrated by actor Sam Elliott during the World Series and $4 million in television ads in now-purple Texas. He’s also been able to purchase ads in 17 battleground states, even though just six of those states are considered to be tight contests. 

A lack of travel expenses owing to COVID-19 restrictions placed on the campaign has allowed it to spend money on out-of-the-box ideas: The campaign rented a $250,000 Amtrak train for a six-city tour through the country’s Rust Belt. 

Sources close to the campaign say the goal is to spend every last dollar and end up with nothing left over as it closes up shop, but at that point, that seems like a futile task. 

So what happens to the leftover cash? Well, a campaign isn’t exactly over when it’s over: Staff stay on to wind things down, close out offices, file and archive papers. Campaigns may continue to pay rent and salaries. They also need to repay any outstanding credit card bills or loans. Sometimes, candidates will continue to fundraise even after they drop out of the race to pay off these outstanding fees (Rudy Giuliani’s campaign was in debt for years after his presidential run). 

But once the bills are paid and the campaign office keys are turned over, there may still be some cash left in the coffers. What then? 

They can start their reelection campaign and transfer the remaining funds into that. As long as all debts are paid, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) allows candidates to move funds between authorized committees so long as they’re for the same person. Biden 2024 could be infused with a few million dollars before it’s even officially underway. They can also use the money to create a “leadership PAC” to support their political agenda. 

But this election isn’t just about the top seat. The Senate and Congress are also up for grabs, and there are a number of important down-ballot races. There’s no limit set by the FEC on how much campaign money a candidate can donate to national, state, or local party committees. Biden could hand the Democratic National Committee some of his excess cash. His campaign can also give directly to state and local candidates and up to $2,000 to each federal candidate. 

Finally, there’s the charity option. The Biden Cancer Initiative has suspended operations while he runs for office, but legally his campaign would be allowed to donate its excess funds to that or any other charity.