Presidential candidates and their super PAC allies have spent more than $682 million, but big money hasn’t carried the day.
The candidates for president and their big-money allies have spent more than $682 million through the end of January, according to federal disclosures.
But money hasn’t bought success.
There’s one area where Donald Trump is badly trailing the field — spending ― and that makes his resounding wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire all the more frustrating to his Republicans he’s trouncing and worrisome to the party leaders trying to block him from winning the nomination.
According to a POLITICO analysis of reports filed Saturday with the Federal Election Commission, through the end of January the campaign of the billionaire real estate showman had spent a total of $24 million. That’s less than half as much as the rivals who finished in a distant second-place tie behind him in South Carolina, Marco Rubio (whose campaign and super PAC and non-profit allies have spent $76 million) and Ted Cruz ($60 million), the analysis found.
Early in the presidential nominating process, Trump and his anti-establishment counterpart on the other side of the aisle Bernie Sanders are completely upending conventional thinking about campaign financing in the big money era sparked by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
Neither man has the support of a dedicated super PAC like those buoying their rivals, and both have essentially declared war on the deepest pocketed donors in their respective parties. Instead, they have pioneered alternative means to power their campaigns ― albeit utilizing vastly different models ― and have shocked the political establishment with their success.
Trump has reached into his own pocket to loan or donate $17.8 million to his once-quixotic campaign, accounting for most of the $26 million it has brought in, though it continues to accept a trickle of donations that totaled $941,000 in January.
He has shelled out $7.6 million on an advertising campaign that he joked was probably a waste of money, given how well he was doing without spending money. But his finance reports show a campaign that relies more on splashy rallies that drive television coverage than on ground organizing. It has spent $2.1 million on events and $1.4 million on his now iconic “Make America Great Again” hats, versus $2.4 million on payroll and field organizing.
Sanders has built a more conventional campaign infrastructure. His campaign, which powered him to a runaway win in this month’s New Hampshire primary, spent $82 million through the end of last month, including January payments of $13.9 million for media, $6.9 million for digital ads and consulting, and $4.4 million for payroll. His overall spending is second only to the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, whose campaign and super PAC allies have combined to spend $101 million, according to POLITICO’s analysis.
But the ways in which Sanders and Clinton are raising their cash couldn’t be more different.
A staggering 70 percent of Sanders’ campaign’s money comes has come from donations of $200 or less, most of which are delivered online or in response to emails and text messages devised by a sophisticated digital operation that is breaking new ground in low-dollar fundraising. Just 1 percent of his donors have reached the $2,700 contribution limit, according to a POLITICO analysis of FEC filings, meaning that the campaign can continue turning to them for cash again and again.
On the flip side, less than 17 percent of the $130 million Clinton has raised this cycle has come from small donors, while about half has come from maxed out donors. That puts Clinton, a longtime darling of the party’s biggest donors, under pressure to expand her small-donor base, lest Sanders continue to outraise her, like he did in January.
Soon after the Associated Press declared Clinton the winner of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, her campaign texted supporters urging them “to say you’re with Hillary” by donating $1. “Together, we can win the nomination, but only if we all pitch in.”
Her campaign finished January with a healthy $33 million in the bank, though it also reported owing $1.1 million in debt, including $377,000 to a charter airplane service, $218,000 to her ad buyer and $117,000 to the firm of her pollster Joel Benenson. And the former Secretary of State also donated $100,000 of in-kind payroll, benefits and computer equipment to her campaign, bringing her total self-funding to $468,000 for the cycle.
But perhaps the best example of the limitations of big money comes from Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. He suspended his campaign for the GOP nomination on Saturday night after placing a distant fourth in South Carolina, despite a campaign and a super PAC that combined to spend $125 million through the end of last month.
Rival fundraisers immediately began making appeals to Bush’s major donors. But several of them expressed leeriness about stroking more big checks, given the utter failure of Bush’s deep-pocketed apparatus to build popular support for Bush.
“I’ve got to reassess my understanding of the process, and how it’s worked this time. It has worked so much differently than it has before,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston private equity investor who donated to Bush’s super PAC and campaign, and also raised money for the campaign. “I still don’t fully understand the successes of the non-traditional candidates on both sides. There is a new paradigm, and I think we’ve got to wait until this whole thing is over ― until after the election ― and see where this took us.”