As a general rule in election politics, the better a candidate’s fundraising number, the earlier he or she will release them. Which is why former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-TX) campaign released his second round of fundraising totals at 9 p.m. the night of the latest filing deadline.
O’Rourke reported raising $3.6 million in the second quarter, a dramatic drop from his first-quarter showing, when he brought in more than $9.3 million in just 18 days. It was a remarkable blow for a candidate whose historic fundraising effort during his 2018 challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made him one of the more anticipated candidates of the field. And all his campaign could do in the aftermath was to try its best to insist that he wasn’t sliding closer to also-ran status.
“We always need more, but we have enough to execute our strategy—for now,” wrote campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon.
“I’ve done a lot of these before,” she added in language that tacitly acknowledged the campaign’s disappointing financial showing. “Campaigns aren’t about how you’re doing at any particular moment—they’re about how you build over time.”
O’Rourke’s campaign said they have $5.2 million on hand. But while his overall fundraising haul provided the latest indication that his presidential campaign is staggering, he was far from the only candidate in the race facing questions about long-term viability.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) raised $4.5 million in the second quarter, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) brought in $3.87 million. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee brought in over $3 million, while Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro each raised $2.8 million, slightly higher than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) 2.3 million haul. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock brought in $2 million and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper totaled $1.15 million.
Some of the totals were more impressive than others. But for veterans of presidential campaigns past, many of the numbers were akin to a political death sentence.
“Money is always it,” Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who managed former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) 2008 presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast. “I’ve seen candidates where as long as they could afford to buy a plane ticket to the next debate, they stayed in. I’ve never seen a person get out of the race for president because they lost.”
The mad-dash among lower-tier candidates to submit last-minute fundraising figures helped crystallize the bifurcated status of the race. For all of the concern in some Democratic quarters about a knock-down, drag-out contest among a huge field of candidates, the lackluster fundraising among a large chunk of candidates has divided the field into the well-off and the also-rans. And it suggests that a winnowing may be imminent.
Indeed, the leading candidates—from former Vice President Joe Biden to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D)—are sucking up nearly all the money in the race, leaving lots of red ink and little hope for their rivals.
“Campaigns don't end when there's no hope,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “They end when there's no money.”
Conant should know. In 2012, he served as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s communication director during the GOP Primary. Pawlenty entered that Republican field with high hopes, but after appearing to back down to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a Republican debate and spending about $1 million on the Iowa Straw poll—and coming in a disappointing third—he ended his campaign in August 2011.
In the 2016 Republican primary, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign appeared formidable, given his network of powerful donors and reputation as a conservative firebrand in what was once a Democratic stronghold. But after his launch in July 2015, he traded the lead with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in polling before falling behind Bush, Donald Trump, and a host of others following some lackluster debate promises.
By September 2015, his campaign was over.
“Presidential races are about momentum and your ability to get press coverage,” Walker’s former campaign manager Rick Wiley told The Daily Beast. “Money obviously plays a key role, but without the first two, the money doesn’t come in. Many of the current Dems will have to face tough choices about the viability of their candidacy soon, likely following the next debate.”
Those Democratic candidates who now find themselves struggling for money have precious few opportunities remaining to kickstart their fundraising operations. Multiple strategists and former campaign officials agreed that the next debate—sponsored by CNN in Detroit later this month—will provide a critical moment for candidates to build up that momentum.
Castro’s campaign provides a template for that type of opportunity. About two thirds of his $2.8 million haul came through donations of $200 or less. Among those above $200, he saw a huge bump from his late June debate performance. Of the roughly $720,000 in itemized donations during the second quarter of the year, 40 percent came in the four days after Castro put up a notable performance on the crowded stage.
But for other candidates who didn’t have a memorable debate, the stakes are even higher. Gillibrand was further in the red than any of her Democratic rivals in the second quarter. She raised about $2.3 million but nearly doubled that in outlays, spending over $4.2 million.
Her campaign downplayed the significance of that shortfall, saying they believe they have enough money to sustain the presidential run. And the senator does have more than $8 million in cash that she can use to plug those financial holes. But the burn rate simply isn’t sustainable. At that current rate her campaign could just barely make it to the Democratic National Convention next year before running a deficit. But if she won the nomination, she’d be bringing an empty bank account to a vicious battle with Trump and the national Republican Party, which together brought in a whopping $108 million in the second quarter.
Other candidates are also underwater to a degree that will make their continued presence in the race questionable. Hickenlooper reported spending $1.65 million—or roughly $500,000 more than he took in. With just $830,000 in cash on hand, that rate would make Hickenlooper's campaign insolvent by year's end. Still, his campaign downplayed that reality.
“The race is wide open,” Hickenlooper’s spokesperson Peter Cunningham told The Daily Beast, without responding to follow up questions about concern over the low total.
Inslee had a smaller shortfall, bringing in about $3 million while spending about $3.2 million. But with less than $1.2 million in cash on hand, that burn rate would bankrupt his campaign by the time the Iowa caucus rolls around. Inslee is one of the few candidates who currently enjoys the backing of a single-candidate super PAC. But that group is legally barred from coordinating with Inslee’s campaign—or providing it with any liquidity.
“For a lot of these people, there’s other offices that they can bail to,” Trippi said. Hickenlooper has turned down a potential Senate bid, while Bullock also appears uninterested in a congressional run. Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), and Tim Ryan (D-OH) will have to decide if they want to run again in the House.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on you if you’re not on the debate stage and you’re struggling financially and you’re faced with losing your House seat,” Trippi added.
Ryan’s campaign, which brought in less than $900,000 last quarter, doesn’t seem to be concerned with that, telling The Daily Beast they “have the resources” needed to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. “At this early stage in the campaign, that is the only thing that matters,” said Ryan’s senior communications advisor Brad Bauman.
For veterans of past campaigns that sputtered among a lack of cash, such a spin has a familiar tone. Every campaign is in position to win it all, after all, until they simply can no longer afford to do so.
“Every under-performing candidate thinks he can be John McCain 2008,” Conant said, recalling the late-senator’s victory in the Republican primary, during which he had to fire virtually all his campaign aides and travel the country by riding coach before turning around his operation. “But McCain had a lot more going for him than people realize. It's hard to imagine another person pulling off what McCain did in 2007 and 2008.”