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Election Update: Democrats’ Unprecedented Fundraising Edge Is Scary For Republicans … And Our Model

Yesterday, my colleague Nathaniel Rakich wrote about the Democrats’ impressive third-quarter fundraising haul, which boosted their odds in our forecast in a number of competitive House races. I’m going to hit the topic of fundraising once more, just to underscore how much of an outlier the Democratic advantage is relative to historical norms and how that could represent a challenge for our forecast.

It would be one thing if Democrats were raising money only in a few high-profile races — say, for example, in Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Senate race in Texas. But that’s precisely not what is happening. Instead, the Democrats’ fundraising advantage is widespread. They’re raising money almost everywhere they need it in the House, whereas Republicans are sometimes coming up short.

For instance, we project that by the time they file their 12G reports later this month — the last filings due before the election — 144 Democrats on November House ballots1 will have raised at least $1 million in individual contributions, not counting self-funding or outside money. But we project just 84 Republicans will have done the same. We also project that 73 Democratic House candidates will have raised at least $2 million, as compared to just 17 Republicans.

FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast update for Oct. 19, 2018

Until recently, it was rare for House candidates to raise $2 million for their races, but it’s become more common in recent years as fundraising has gone digital and candidates have learned how to make highly tailored online appeals. There was a huge jump in the number of $2-million-plus candidates in both parties between 2014 and 2016, for example. But while Democrats’ numbers have held steady or improved from the high levels they had in 2016, Republican numbers have collapsed. The 17 GOP candidates that we project will raise at least $2 million this year is down from 64 in 2016. (All figures are adjusted for inflation.)

Democrats’ fundraising advantage is widespread
Number of candidates on Nov. House ballots raising …
At least $500K by 20 days before the election At least $1M by 20 days before the election At least $2M by 20 days before the election
Year Dem. GOP Dem. GOP Dem. GOP
1998 93 128 22 37 3 4
2000 123 153 48 61 4 9
2002 108 151 38 37 8 6
2004 134 178 48 66 8 10
2006 156 172 62 65 13 13
2008 190 168 84 60 18 10
2010 200 220 95 87 20 15
2012 170 227 80 105 18 2
2014 153 197 65 76 23 9
2016 212 249 142 171 80 64
2018* 232 179 144 84 73 17

*2018 totals are extrapolated based on fundraising through Sept. 30.

All figures are adjusted for inflation.

Source: Federal election commission

The result is a fundraising disparity the likes of which we’ve never seen before — at least not in recent years. (Our data on House fundraising goes back to 1998.) In the average House district, the Democratic candidate has raised 64 percent of the money this cycle,2 or almost two-thirds. Likewise, the Democrat has raised an average of 65 percent of the money in districts rated as competitive3 by the Cook Political Report. In all previous years in our database, no party had averaged more than 56 percent of the money in these competitive districts.

Democrats’ fundraising dominance has no recent precedent
Democrats’ share of two-party campaign contributions
All House districts Competitive House districts
Year Average Median Average Median
1998 47% 42% 51% 49%
2000 50 49 49 50
2002 49 41 46 44
2004 47 44 49 50
2006 54 54 51 50
2008 60 66 49 49
2010 47 49 54 53
2012 46 43 48 48
2014 48 46 56 55
2016 49 46 52 54
2018* 64 71 65 68

*Based on data available as of Oct. 18, 2018. For other years, totals are based on data available as of Election Day. The data covers individual campaign contributions only, and not candidate self-funding or donations from PACs or outside groups.

Source: Federal Election Commission

The fundraising numbers are so good for Democrats — and so bad for Republicans — that it’s hard to know quite what to make of them. From a modeling standpoint, we’re extrapolating from years in which fundraising was relatively even, or from when one party had a modest edge, into an environment where Democrats suddenly have a 2-1 advantage in fundraising in competitive races. Moreover, this edge comes despite the fact that a large number of these competitive races feature Republican incumbents (incumbents usually have an easier time raising money than challengers) and that most of them are in red terrain.

If Democrats beat their projections on Nov. 6 — say, they win 63 House seats, equalling the number that Republicans won in 2010, an unlikely-but-not-impossible scenario — we may look back on these fundraising numbers as the canary in the coal mine. That data, plus Democrats’ very strong performances in special elections, could look like tangible signs of a Democratic turnout surge that pollsters and pundits perhaps won’t have paid enough attention to. Right now, in fact, the polls are not showing a Democratic turnout advantage. Instead, based on a comparison of likely-voter and registered-voter polls, they’re projecting roughly equal turnout between the parties, with Republicans’ demographic advantages (older, whiter voters typically vote at higher rates in the midterms) counteracting Democrats’ seemingly higher enthusiasm. If turnout among Democratic-leaning groups actually outpaces turnout among Republican-leaning ones, Democrats will beat their polls and our projections.

It’s just as easy to imagine the error running the other way, however. Maybe — precisely because fundraising has become easier and candidates are winning contributions from out-of-state and out-of-district donors — fundraising is no longer as meaningful an indicator of candidates’ grassroots appeal or organizational strength. Maybe the demographics of the Republican coalition have changed such that they’ll no longer raise as much money but will still get plenty of votes. Or maybe the GOP can make up for their lack of individual fundraising with more money from outside groups. If that’s the case, our model could overestimate Democrats’ chances. Although, I should note that while there’s a gap between our Lite forecast, which is based on local and national polls only, and our Classic forecast, which also incorporates fundraising and other “fundamentals” data, it’s not an especially large one. (Lite projects Democrats to pick up 36 seats, on average, as compared to 39 seats in the Classic forecast.)

Either way, we’re in somewhat uncharted territory here. For the most part, the various indicators we use in our House forecast tell a consistent story. The generic congressional ballot, district-by-district polling and the past electoral history of midterm years under unpopular presidents are all consistent with a Democratic edge of somewhere between 6 and 10 percentage points in the House popular vote, and with Democrats being reasonably solid but not overwhelming favorites to win a majority of seats. The fundraising data, on the other hand, points toward a massive Democratic landslide.

As a first approximation, the correct approach with data that looks like an outlier is to average it together with the other indicators — not to throw it out. (More often than you might think, the seeming “outlier” proves to be correct and it’s the other data that was off.) And that’s more or less what our model does. But the fundraising data contributes uncertainty to our forecast in a way that our top line probabilities may not capture well.


  1. That is, excluding candidates who lost in their primaries.

  2. From among the money going to the major-party candidates.

  3. Meaning, rated as “toss-up,” “leaning” or “likely.”

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.