WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Former Vice President Joe Biden outraised President Donald Trump for the first time in May as Democrats rallied around their likely nominee, but Trump still has a bigger war chest than any incumbent president in history and neither candidate appears likely to be scrounging for dollars to stay competitive in the months ahead.
Both campaigns declared record fundraising hauls for May, with Biden and the Democratic National Committee taking in $80.8 million and Trump and the Republican National Committee racking up $74 million in donations. With both campaigns expected to raise and spend hundreds of millions more before November, though, the difference might not amount to much.
May was the first month Biden was able to raise money in conjunction with the DNC as the presumptive nominee, allowing them to combine resources and data and increasing the maximum contribution donors could give. Whether Democrats can continue to outpace Republicans once an initial surge of funding dissipates remains to be seen.
The Biden campaign touted a tripling in the number of online donors since February, with more than half of contributions in May coming from first-time donors. With an average online donation of $30 in May, Biden is strengthening his grassroots support and many of those contributors will likely be able to donate again as the race proceeds.
“I understand what these dollars mean. When facing uncertainty and recession, you chose to back me. I will never forget that. And I promise that when I’m president, I won’t let you down,” Biden said in an email to supporters last week.
Outraising Trump is a strong sign of support for Biden, who struggled to keep up with the fundraising prowess of some of his opponents throughout the primaries. However, Democratic strategist Hamza Khan cautioned progressives against getting overconfident with four-and-a-half months until Election Day.
“It tells us that donors are both optimistic and desperate to change the direction of our country, given the high cost in American lives and economic output that Trump’s poor policy decisions have exacted,” Khan said.
While Democrats brought in more than Republicans in May, Trump and the RNC still have more than twice as much cash on hand. At the start of June, Republicans had about $265 million in their war chest, but even after a record-setting month, Democrats only had about $130 million, according to The Washington Post.
“After yet another massive fundraising haul, it remains clear that the enthusiasm behind President Trump’s re-election campaign goes unmatched,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “While Sleepy Joe Biden lobs ineffective partisan attacks from the shadows of his basement, President Trump is leading The Great American Comeback and he is drawing support from every corner of this country.”
Downplaying Biden’s edge in May fundraising totals, the Trump campaign stressed the expansiveness of its field operations and data collection, with 1.3 million volunteers and 45 million voter contacts. The campaign also highlighted its largest one-day fundraising haul ever last week, taking in $14 million on President Trump’s birthday.
The president has been amassing a record-sized war chest since he took office, while Biden battled for the last year with over a dozen other Democrats for liberal donors’ dollars. Democrats always expected their fundraising to coalesce behind their nominee, but Trump’s head start might prove difficult to overcome.
“The Biden campaign and the Democratic Party, overall, should still be very wary of President Trump’s cash,” said Jason Mollica, a communications and public relations expert and a lecturer at American University. “While his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the weekend was not successful, the president can still count on support from his base and the massive donations already brought in.”
One advantage Biden brings over some of the others in the Democratic field from a fundraising perspective is a willingness to hold big-dollar fundraisers and welcome financial support from the wealthy. Other contenders like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders bristled at such tactics, focusing instead on smaller grassroots donations.
Warren seems to have come around, though, recently helping Biden host his biggest fundraiser to date, raking in $6 million in one night last week. The former vice president might top that total Tuesday night with a virtual fundraiser marking his first campaign appearance with former President Barack Obama.
“Those that opposed Mr. Biden during the primaries, like Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, continue to bring new donors along,” Mollica said. “Add this to the support of former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it can show a strength even without equaling President Trump dollar for dollar.”
Pro-Biden super PACs also saw a spike in donations in May while those allied with Trump experienced a slowdown. Democratic super PAC Priorities USA brought in $7.5 million last month with commitments for tens of millions more expected in June, and it spent nearly $10 million on ads.
“Momentum is building for Joe Biden and that is translating into an increase in donor support for Priorities. We’ve been matching the Trump campaign and his super PAC on TV and online in key battleground states and successfully filled the gap prior to the Biden campaign’s spending,” Priorities USA chairman Guy Cecil said in a statement Friday.
Trump’s favored super PAC America First Action raised only $2.4 million in May, about a quarter of what it took in the previous month. However, the organization told Politico it temporarily eased up on soliciting donations due to the coronavirus and is not expecting any shortfalls going forward. America First still has more cash on hand than pro-Biden PACS, as well.
Outraising and outspending Democrats has not done Trump terribly much good so far. A massive infusion of pro-Trump ad spending has done little to shift public opinion as Biden’s lead continues to grow amid concerns about the president’s handling of multiple crises shaking the nation.
The RealClearPolitics polling average currently places Biden ahead of Trump nationally by 9.5 points, and a Fox News poll released late last week showed Biden leading by 12 among registered voters. However, the survey found Trump supporters are twice as likely as Biden voters to say enthusiasm for their candidate is driving their choice, while most Biden supporters are primarily motivated by fear of another four years under Trump.
Although Trump’s campaign has stepped up attacks on Biden over his record and mental fitness, Biden is still more trusted on many issues, aside from the economy, and disapproval of Trump’s response to racial protests that have spread across the country this month is high. Many voters remain open to changing their views of Biden, but Trump’s ads on TV and social media and his frequent tweets slamming “Sleepy Joe” have not yet had much impact.
Democrats might not be able to catch up to Trump’s fundraising, which has repeatedly broken records over the last three years and dwarves what past campaigns have raised, but how much campaigns spend ultimately matters less than how wisely the money is spent. Trump’s 2016 campaign spent just over half what Democratic nominee Secretary Hillary Clinton spent--$616.5 million compared to 1.2 billion—and it was still enough to edge out a victory in key swing states.
“It will come down to how wisely each dollar is deployed to garner more votes,” Khan said. “Democrats often need more cash because their voters oftentimes are the downtrodden and hopeless... Therefore, for the presidential: Democrats need to especially marshal their dollars towards an effective outreach and field plan.”
Despite trailing in polls, the Trump campaign and its allies maintain they are confident in their strategy and their ability to continue raking in contributions. The president held his first in-person fundraisers in three months last week, reportedly taking in $10 million at one event in Dallas.
“President Trump's consistent leadership and unprecedented actions during this challenging time has undoubtedly resonated with the American people,” RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. “Support across the country continues to pour in, helping us to build an unparalleled operation that will deliver victories up and down the ballot in November.”
The coronavirus pandemic could complicate campaigns’ financial planning, with costly large-scale events curtailed for the last three months and plans for the rest of the summer still unclear. The Biden campaign seems willing to continue focusing on sporadic public appearances and virtual events, but President Trump is eager to get back on the road and resume regular rallies in arenas filled with cheering fans.
That comeback did not get off to a great start Saturday night in Tulsa, where fire marshals estimated Trump’s venue was only about one-third full and the campaign had to dismantle an outdoor overflow area because it was not needed. The Trump campaign has attempted to blame the media and protesters for discouraging people from attending, but it appears even some of the president’s supporters are reluctant to return to crowded public gatherings at the moment.
Rising coronavirus infections in nearly half of the states over the last week signal concerns about the virus spreading are still very real. Still, President Trump is likely to continue pressing to hold large events as soon as he can wherever state and local officials will allow it.
CNN reported Monday Trump campaign aides are weighing when and how to proceed with rallies after Saturday’s disappointment. They are reportedly discussing a shift to outdoor spaces and smaller venues, and it could be weeks or months before the sort of events Trump was accustomed to holding before the pandemic hit are seen again.
Voter mobilization might also look different this cycle, especially if a second wave of the coronavirus hits the U.S. this fall. Campaigns have resumed in-person voter contacts in states where social distancing restrictions have been lifted, but they must consider the prospect of further logistical challenges in the months ahead.
“How you conduct voter contact on the doors while a raging pandemic ravages the nation is a bit hard to predict or plan for,” Khan said. “But digital solutions and phone calls since everyone remains stuck at home aren’t being ruled out.”
Coronavirus-era campaigning has been a hurdle for both campaigns, but Biden’s poll numbers and his fundraising figures should put to rest any fears among Democrats that being sidelined from the campaign trail would damage his standing. He has been able to save on travel costs, limit potential gaffes, and keep the public focused on President Trump’s words and actions while bolstering his operations for the battles to come with Trump’s already-formidable campaign machine.
“Both campaigns, ultimately, want to be on the trail,” Mollica said. “However, with no vaccine for the coronavirus available and social distancing protocols being in place, the money normally used can go to other facets of the campaigns, like social and digital media.”