Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): Saturday was the deadline for filing second-quarter campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission, which means that we got a detailed look at candidates’ fundraising and spending from April 1 through the end of June. That’s a big deal, because many of the GOP presidential candidates announced they were running during this period, so it’s our first comprehensive look at the financial state of the field — who’s getting lots of donations, who’s drawing from big and small donors, and who’s struggling to keep up.
And while the presidential race is top of mind for many, those candidates are not the only ones required to meet this deadline. We also got some important intel about key Senate candidates’ fundraising.
But let’s start with the top of the ticket. What were your biggest takeaways from this weekend’s fundraising report drop?
gelliottmorris (G. Elliott Morris, editorial director of data analytics): The numbers that caught my attention the most are the cash-on-hand tallies for each of the 2024 GOP presidential primary contenders. Right now we see former President Donald Trump has nearly $23 million in the bank (with potentially much more in his allied PAC, which has yet to report), Sen. Tim Scott at $21 million, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at $12 million and everyone else below $10 million — with some notable candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence among them, hovering in the $1-2 million range. These numbers echo the polls and show that, at least for donors, the contest right now really is between Trump and DeSantis. But then we have Scott in second with over $20 million, even though only 3 percent of GOP primary voters are telling pollsters they’d vote for him! What’s up with that?
kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, politics and technology reporter): To be honest, my biggest takeaway was that there weren’t really any big surprises here. Fundraising was maybe a little sleepy overall, but that was across the board. Comparatively, everything is shaking out more or less the way I’d expect. Trump and President Biden are fundraising well and have plenty of cash on hand. Trump is spending at a healthy clip to keep challengers at bay, but with the amount he has fundraised so far, he can stand to spend like that. DeSantis had a competitive first quarter, though he’s also spending somewhat aggressively. The ultra-wealthy candidates are largely self-funding their campaigns. The long-shot candidates are trailing.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Yeah, I generally think fundraising is overrated as a data point in presidential races. The truly serious candidates are going to be able to raise the cash they need to be competitive, and we didn’t need this fundraising report to tell us that, say, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (who raised only $582,521) has extremely long odds of winning. As Elliott mentioned, the fundraising numbers are pretty well correlated with the polls.
ameliatd: But what about some of the surprises — like the fact that Pence raised so little relative to the other candidates, despite polling around 7 percent in our average currently?
nrakich: Yeah, I was just about to mention that, Amelia. The one time when fundraising reports are interesting in the presidential race is when a candidate who should be able to raise a lot doesn’t. And Pence’s fundraising was bad. I mean bad: just $1.2 million. Granted, he got into the race pretty late in the quarter (he created his campaign committee on June 5), but even if you project that out to a full quarter for an apples-to-apples comparison with the other candidates, it ranks ninth out of the 11 major candidates.
|Candidate||Actual Q2 Receipts||Q2 Campaign Days||Prorated Receipts|
That’s — to repeat myself — really bad for someone who’s a national political figure with (in theory) a wide network of donors. I even think it’s an open question at this point whether he’ll be able to get the 40,000 donors necessary to qualify for the debate.
kaleigh: Yeah, so far he hasn’t. Just six GOP candidates have met that threshold for now: Christie, DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Scott and Trump.
gelliottmorris: My take on Pence is that we see the same groupings in the polls as we see in these FEC filings (loosely speaking).
- Group 1: Trump, the default nominee
- Group 2: Candidates who support Trump but are pitching an electability/time to move on campaign: Scott, DeSantis, Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Haley
- Group 3: Candidates who are vocal Trump opponents who have made the #NeverTrump movement a cornerstone of their campaign: Pence, Christie
- Group 4: Low name recognition: Hutchinson, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, former Rep. Will Hurd
If you’re in Group 2 or below, you mostly poll in the low to mid-single digits because you have a lot of people to compete with. And if you’re in Group 3 or below, GOP donors don’t want to touch you either (a) because you don’t share their ideology, or (b) you haven’t proved that you could actually win.
nrakich: You could even put Hutchinson and Hurd in Group 3 there, Elliott. Suarez has also been a Trump skeptic historically, though I’m not sure he’s been as vocal about it on the campaign trail. (I confess I have not been watching his speeches religiously.)
gelliottmorris: For me, the dividing line is whether people know you’re out-and-proud “#NeverTrump,” which might help your polls but almost certainly hurts your donations.
ameliatd: OK … so let’s talk about DeSantis’s fundraising. There’s been a lot of talk about his high burn rate and other potential trouble signs, like seeing the pace of contributions slow after his announcement. Are those signs that something’s wrong with his candidacy?
kaleigh: I took a quick look at the burn rate for this quarter and DeSantis did not stand out. In fact, Trump had a higher burn rate for the quarter — he spent just over half ($9.1 million) of the $17.7 million he raised, while DeSantis spent about 40 percent ($7.9 million) of the $20.1 million he raised.
Now, Trump had a longer fundraising runway than DeSantis, so he had much more cash on hand at the end of the quarter and could afford to put the money he raised this cycle to work. But other candidates had much higher burn rates than DeSantis: Both Scott and Ramaswamy spent more than they brought in this quarter, and Burgum spent close to 70 percent of what he raised.
Burn rates tend to follow a cycle, with front-runner candidates stashing cash earlier in the campaign and spending more later. You can see that with Biden, who spent only around 6 percent of what he raised this quarter. But Biden can afford to, because he’s not in a competitive primary. I think this shows DeSantis right where we know him to be — behind Trump and the former president’s biggest opponent — but not that the campaign is desperately spending or spiraling out of control.
gelliottmorris: And another problem Trump has, Kaleigh, is that Trump’s PAC has been footing his legal bills, which are bound to be higher this quarter than last. If the media is questioning whether DeSantis has the runway for his campaign, they might also question whether Trump can outrun the financial implications of his legal woes.
kaleigh: True! We should get more details on PAC spending and fundraising at the end of the month, which will fill in some of the gaps for the major campaigns.
nrakich: Yeah, there have been a lot of stories about how DeSantis’s fundraising report wasn’t actually that good for him once you look under the hood. And the fact that he had to lay off some of his campaign staff is concerning. But I think there was still more good news for DeSantis than bad. He had an impressive quarter overall: He raised $20.1 million, the most of any candidate. And it’s even more impressive when you consider that he didn’t jump into the race until May 24. If he had sustained that fundraising pace over a full quarter, he would have raised $48.2 million!
Now, Politico pointed out he raised $5.8 million of his $16.8 million in itemized donations (donations above $200) within the first 10 days of his campaign announcement. But his pace after that was still pretty good: $11 million in 28 days. That’s the equivalent of a $35.8 million quarter.
In addition, some people have noted that DeSantis was much more reliant on big donors than Trump was, and many of those donors have already given the maximum to his campaign. But also, DeSantis has a well-funded super PAC (which can accept unlimited donations), which can blunt that disadvantage. We don’t know yet how much his super PAC raised, but it was reportedly $130 million (though that includes $82 million transferred from an old state-level PAC).
ameliatd: Were there any other surprises? What do we make of Scott’s numbers? What about some of the other candidates, like Burgum and Ramaswamy?
nrakich: Scott’s numbers were pretty good: third-best in the field, non-self-funder division, which I think is consistent with the conventional wisdom about his campaign (that he is the third-best-positioned). He had a very high burn rate, but you can afford to do that when you go into the quarter with $22 million socked away from your Senate campaigns.
kaleigh: Yeah, Scott’s fundraising wasn’t anything spectacular, but his leftover Senate campaign money is giving him a nice cushion. As of this quarter, he has about as much cash on hand as Biden or Trump.
gelliottmorris: Scott also appears to have a strong base of support: The campaign said last week that he had over 53,000 unique donors, which is enough to satisfy the donor requirement for the debate stage and comes out to an average contribution of around $100. That means that a lot of people aren’t maxing out on him, so he can continue to come back to that well. Scott also has the support of some party elites and has been running a pretty competent traditional campaign, which you’d think are good signs … until you see his polling.
nrakich: Well, I will point out that his high campaign spending does seem to have moved the needle in Iowa, where he registered at 7 percent and 9 percent in the two most recent polls.
kaleigh: Yeah, you can see that’s his campaign’s strategy. In a field this crowded, if you’re not the No. 1 or No. 2, you are going to have to spend more up front to try to break through early on.
nrakich: We should also mention Burgum and Ramaswamy. They raised the third- and fourth-most in the field — but they are the two self-funders I alluded to earlier. A full $10.1 million of Burgum’s $11.8 million haul came from his own pocket, and $5.0 million of Ramaswamy’s $7.7 million did too. Of course, that’s still real money, and Burgum’s spending has been particularly notable. He has spent more than any other candidate on TV ads thus far, and he’s been in the race for only about a month! So there’s probably plenty more where that came from.
gelliottmorris: Both Burgum and Ramaswamy have also been engaging in some questionable schemes to juice their donor figures, with the former announcing he’d send you a $20 gift card in exchange for a campaign donation of at least $1, and Ramaswamy launching a plan to allow people to fundraise for his campaign and keep 10 percent of the money they bring in. That speaks to a pretty severe grassroots weakness for both campaigns — though, for what it’s worth, Burgum’s program brought in 20,000 new donors in its first two days.
ameliatd: Well, I guess when you pay people to donate — it works? Go figure.
We’ve been talking about presidential candidates so far. But lots of other candidates filed reports on Saturday too, including some people running in high-profile Senate races. Any noteworthy results there?
nrakich: Yes. Democratic senators who are in for tough races really turned on the jets. Montana Sen. Jon Tester raised $5.1 million last quarter, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown raised $5.0 million. Those were the two best quarters for any incumbent senators.
However, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin continues to lag behind, with $1.3 million raised last quarter. That said, he has $10.8 million cash on hand, as he’s been saving up for a while. And Manchin’s fundraising quarter wasn’t totally moribund, which should help forestall rumors of his retirement. Last quarter, he raised only $371,000, which led me to speculate in this space that he might call it quits.
gelliottmorris: Other Democrats on that list also posted good numbers, including Rep. Colin Allred ($8.8 million), who is running for Senate in Texas, and Rep. Ruben Gallego ($3.1 million), who is running against Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona.
nrakich: In terms of Republican challengers, in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice outraised Rep. Alex Mooney $935,000 to $411,000. That’s good news for the GOP, since early polling has indicated that Justice would fare much better against Manchin than Mooney would.
And in Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno outraised state Sen. Matt Dolan $2.3 million to $1.3 million — and that includes a $1 million loan from Dolan to his own campaign. That’s not too surprising since Moreno is the pro-Trump candidate in the race (Trump has said nice things about him too — maybe there’s an endorsement in the offing?), while Dolan wants to move on from the ex-president. However, this race did get a new entrant just this week in Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and he could be a formidable candidate as well. So the GOP primary isn’t in the bag for Moreno.
ameliatd: And overall … any takeaways about the state of the race, either for president or major Senate seats?
nrakich: I think if you squint, you can start to make out favorites in some of these Senate primaries, as I noted. And it’s good for Democrats that Tester and Brown are making the money machine go brrr. But beyond that, I do think it’s too early to make any pronouncements about the general election. Money isn’t determinative, after all.
kaleigh: Just to circle back to something Nathaniel said off the top about fundraising being overrated as a data point. There is a story here, but it’s not one that clashes with the broader story of the race so far. If anything, it confirms how things are looking. Try not to read too much into nitpicky narratives about specific candidates’ spending or raising.
gelliottmorris: I’ll note that on the Democratic presidential side, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also had a decently sized haul from individual donors, signaling he will probably stick around for a while longer despite steady and low polling numbers. Many of his donors appear to be Republicans, too, which won’t help him in any states with closed primaries. We should have our average of the 2024 Democratic presidential primary up soon, and Kennedy’s numbers are essentially a flat line around 10 percent.