Former Vice President Joe Biden maintains his front-runner status in the Democratic presidential primary, keeping his lead in several national polls despite the upward trajectory of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But he trails her and others in another important metric: money.
“We owe you an explanation,” Biden wrote in a recent email to supporters, noting that many have asked him why he has less in his campaign war chest than Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In this contest for the nomination, a candidate’s fundraising and spending have been as telling as where they fall in public opinion polling.
How much are they pulling in? How quickly are they burning through the cash? What kinds of donors make up their base? The answers to these questions in the so-called money primary help determine a campaign’s viability, political experts said.
Biden of Delaware finished the third quarter of fundraising — the period stretching from July through September — with $8.9 million in cash on hand.
Sanders of Vermont had more than three times as much with $33.7 million, Warren of Massachusetts had $25.7 million, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, had $23.4 million.
“Generally, money is always important, especially in this stage of this primary, because it’s an indication of who’s ahead, who’s in the top tier and who can finance a viable campaign,” said Anthony Corrado, a political finance expert and Colby College professor of government. “But it’s particularly important in this race, first, because it’s a standard for getting into the debates, and second, because you have a number of well-financed candidates.”
Small vs. big donors
For progressives Sanders and Warren, the leaders in the money primary, reaching the number of donors necessary to qualify for the debates hasn’t been a problem. Their fundraising operations revolve around large numbers of contributors giving small amounts.
Biden, the race's leading moderate, has raised most of his funds more traditionally: via events where wealthier donors can make the maximum contribution allowable by law, $2,800.
In the third quarter, Sanders raised $25.2 million, Warren $24.6 million, Buttigieg $19.1 million and Biden $15.7 million.
President Donald Trump and Republican National Committee raised a combined $125 million for the quarter.
Biden addressed the fact that he is lagging.
“We didn’t expect to fight a Democratic primary AND fight outright lies from Trump’s campaign AND face an international conspiracy led by the President of the United States simultaneously,” he explained to supporters in the late October email.
In another indicator he realizes he must fill his coffers, the former vice president has reversed his decision to refuse support from super PACs.
Sanders, meanwhile, said that just as important as the money he has raised is how he raised it.
“We received an astonishing 1.4 million individual donations in the last three months at an average donation of just $18," he wrote in an early October email.
Warren similarly has placed emphasis on small-dollar donors over corporate PACs, tweeting over the summer, “We’re 100% grassroots-funded.”
But both she and Sanders face scrutiny for transferring to their presidential campaign accounts millions of dollars from their Senate accounts raised when they hadn’t yet spurned big-money fundraisers.
Warren plans to continue forgoing big-dollar events for her campaign in the general election if nominated, but she has made an exception for fundraisers benefiting her party.
Money vs. momentum
Still, experts said Biden’s relative lack of money won’t necessarily translate into a lack of votes, particularly in early nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“An established name like Biden doesn’t need as much money as a newcomer,” said Michael J. Goff, author of “The Money Primary.”
“If he does respectably in those early states, sheer name recognition and desire to back a winner should clear the way for him to Super Tuesday,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. “You get that precious commodity called momentum. Momentum replaces money.”
The contributions have flowed to Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren “because they appeal to very specific and highly energized groups of people,” Goff said. Mainstream, moderate voters in primaries have always been far less likely to donate than liberals or conservatives, but they’ll still vote, Goff said.
Buttigieg tacks closer to the center than Sanders and Warren, but the openly gay combat veteran has won deep support in part with his political communication skills.
“It’s going to come down to which one the voters really think can beat President Trump,” said Goff, president of the Northeast-Midwest Institute think tank. “The only thing that’s going to dislodge Biden is people beginning to think he can’t win.”
Raising vs. spending
The candidates who have neither the name recognition of Biden nor the hyper-activated bases of Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren are spending big to be seen.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had the highest so-called burn rate of any Democrat in the third quarter: 162%. She raised $4.8 million and spent $7.8 million, in part to ensure she qualified for the debate stage. She then saw a bump following her Oct. 15 debate performance, raising $1.1 million in the 24 hours afterward.
California billionaire Tom Steyer, a late entry to the primary whose campaign is largely self-funded, spent $47 million of his $49.6 million. He saw an apparent return from his investment in advertising when a Suffolk University/USA Today poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers last month put him at fifth place — albeit a distant fifth — behind Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California enjoyed a spike in contributions following her June debate performance, but has struggled since. Her campaign last Wednesday announced major staff cuts and a restructuring that involved redeploying aides to Iowa. In the third quarter, she raised $11.8 million but spent $14.6 million.
Corrado, the political finance expert, reiterated that focusing resources on the early-nominating states could be the wisest play for all.
“What we’ve seen over the years is the ability to develop support particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to be more important than money,” he said. “But money is still important because you still need to have the threshold to wage a viable campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Where the candidates fall financially
Cash on hand, in millions
Donald Trump, $83.2
Bernie Sanders: $33.7
Elizabeth Warren: $25.7
Pete Buttigieg: $23.4
Kamala Harris: $10.5
Joe Biden: $8.9
Andrew Yang: $6.4
(Numbers reported from the third quarter, July through September. Other candidates' cash on hand fell below $5 million.)