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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson May 29, 2020

If Your Time is short

• As of late May, President Donald Trump has a lead over expected Democratic nominee Joe Biden in both funds raised and cash on hand. It’s not unusual for an incumbent to have such a lead, and Biden had to compete in fundraising with a large field of primary rivals until mid-March.

• Trump has dramatically increased his fundraising haul over the amount he’d raised at this point in 2016 — when he, too, faced a crowded field — but Biden has also exceeded what was raised by eventual 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at this point in that election cycle.

• The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic impact could affect how much both candidates can raise going forward, but how big an effect remains to be seen.

The presidential race may have taken a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic, its economic fallout, and anger over deaths in police custody. But the contest between President Donald Trump and expected Democratic nominee Joe Biden is proceeding, notably in the realm of fundraising.

Here’s a look at how the fundraising picture looks as of late May. We’ll update it periodically as the campaign progresses.

First, we’ll look at funds raised by each candidate and their allies. On the advice of campaign finance experts, we’re combining three types of money collected: money donated to the campaign itself, money donated to outside groups that support the candidate, and money donated to the Republican National Committee or Democratic National Committee, according to federal disclosure forms collected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. While there are different rules governing how each of these types of groups can spend their money, combining the three gives the broadest look at how well-funded each candidate is.

In the big picture, Trump leads Biden in funds raised, $670 million to $422 million:

 

Trump so far has been stronger in collecting donations to his campaign and to the RNC, while Biden has an edge in money raised by outside groups.

These numbers and patterns will change as the campaign moves forward. Until Biden wrapped up the nomination in March, he faced a large primary field whose candidates competed with him for donations. Trump, by contrast, didn’t have to worry about competing against any major primary rivals for funds.

In addition, Trump has had a head start with a vehicle known as a joint fundraising committee, which is used to raise money for both the RNC and the Trump campaign. This entity is able to accept much larger amounts of money from donors than the campaign is on its own.

Earlier this month, Biden created his own joint fundraising committee, so he could close the gap in the coming months. (Fundraising disclosures from Biden’s committee are not yet available.)

How does this compare to the 2016 cycle? Here’s how things looked between Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, at roughly this stage of the race:

 

Trump was then a first-time candidate who became the surprise nominee against a large group of Republican candidates. He trailed Clinton, a veteran politician who faced a much smaller field. 

Clinton easily outpaced Trump in campaign fundraising and outside group support, though the RNC had an edge over the DNC. 

Clinton had also run for president once before, in 2008, and was first lady to Bill Clinton, who won the presidency twice. So she had extensive connections to party donors that Trump at that point did not have. So the evolution of Trump into a comparative money machine is a notable accomplishment. (Incumbency helps, of course.)

Also notable is that Biden has exceeded Clinton’s fundraising at roughly the same point. Clinton and her allies had raised $371 million, compared with Biden’s $422 million. Still, Trump has increased his own performance by an even greater factor, raising $670 million this cycle compared with just $187 million at this point in 2016.

Fundraising isn’t the only factor worth watching. Raising a lot of money but then quickly spending it leaves relatively little in the bank. Here’s a look at the two candidates’ figures for cash on hand:

 

As this chart shows, Trump has the edge here as well, with about $211 million on hand, compared with $127 million for Biden. Again, these numbers will change as the candidates raise and spend additional money.

Campaign finance experts said that Trump’s start is impressive, but that Biden’s position isn’t cause for Democrats to panic.

"Incumbents usually start earlier and have a fundraising advantage," said Paul S. Herrnson, a University of Connecticut political scientist who specializes in campaign finance. "One would expect the gap to close. Biden and the DNC are behind, which is always a cause for concern, but they should be able to catch up."

Costas Panagopoulos, a Northeastern University political scientist, agreed, and added that "recent cycles have confirmed that money does not ensure victories at the polls. For Biden, fundraising may be less consequential, because he already has sky-high national name recognition."

Indeed, voters’ familiarity with Biden helped him become the presumptive nominee with a sizable war chest, despite his being among the weakest fund-raisers in the Democratic primary field.

One wild card going forward is whether either candidate will be able to maintain the pace of fundraising he’s demonstrated so far amid the pandemic, social distancing and the severe economic downturn.

"We are in a period of political polarization, and control over political institutions is very competitive, which usually leads to high spending" Herrnson said. "However, the economic slump and coronavirus may depress fundraising somewhat."

But it’s possible that the health and economic situation could actually end up stimulating donations, since voters will see the stakes as high on multiple fronts, Panagopoulos said.

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Our Sources

Center for Responsive Politics, opensecrets.org website, accessed May 29, 2020

Washington Post, "Donors can now give $620,600 to Biden and DNC, expanding Democratic big-money fundraising," May 16, 2020

Wall Street Journal, "Biden Had Half as Much Cash as Trump at End of April," May 15, 2020

Email interview with Brendan Quinn and Doug Weber, Center for Responsive Politics, May 28, 2020

Email interview with Costas Panagopoulos, Northeastern University political scientist, May 28, 2020

Email interview with Paul S. Herrnson, a University of Connecticut political scientist, May 28, 2020

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