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Four Ways To Fund A Presidential Campaign

In the era of super PACs and nonprofit political groups, the money presidential candidates raise for their own campaigns is often dwarfed by what outside groups raise and spend to support them. But the ability of candidates to raise money from individuals is still an important indication of how much support they have. And the nature of their donors tells us a great deal, too, about their political appeal. Are candidates raising money from many people of modest means, who make small donations, or from a smaller group of wealthier donors, who give the maximum allowed by law?

The first big batch of fundraising reports from the 2016 candidates arrived at the Federal Elections Commission this week, giving us an early glimpse at money machines starting to rev up. The campaign is still young, and super PACs have yet to report, but the numbers from the campaigns are starting to reveal some preliminary patterns.

Using those fundraising reports, we’ve put each candidate into one of four categories, based on the amount raised from individuals (adjusted for how long the candidate has been in the race) and the share of that amount that came from small donors.1

Category I: A lot of cash raised, mostly from large donors

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are miles ahead of any other candidate, when adjusting for how long they’ve been raising money. Bush reported raising about $11 million in the second quarter, but he did it over the course of just two weeks. Clinton ended the quarter with a much higher total — about $47 million — but she spent 11 weeks getting there.

About 17 percent of Clinton’s money came from contributors who gave $200 or less, which, while not close to the levels of Obama’s campaigns, is a pool her campaign can go back to for more.2 Bush’s share from small donors was the lowest of any candidate in the campaign, at about 3 percent.

Category II: Less cash, but mostly from small donors

Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republicans Rand Paul and Ben Carson have raised respectable amounts, and they’ve relied on small donors to do it. That’s a strong sign of early grassroots support, but in order to sustain that share over the course of the campaign, they’ll need to continue to find new low-dollar contributors rather than trying to convert those small donors into large ones.

Category III: Less cash, mostly from large donors

While their per-day fundraising numbers are similar to the candidates in Category II, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio3 got a smaller share of money from low-dollar donors and are expected to rely more on super PAC support, which will allow the campaigns to spend their money differently.

Category IV: Not much fundraising

The rest of the field has a tough road ahead. Two of the candidates in this group — Donald Trump and Lincoln Chafee — are, so far, relying on their own money4 much more than that of donors, and others may be forced to do the same. But self-funded candidates are usually self-funded for a reason — they lack support from donors.

Others — Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — have run before, and didn’t raise huge sums over the course of their previous attempts.

Methodology: The chart includes only contributions from individuals; not self-funding contributions, or those from PACs, or transfers from other campaigns. It does not take into account refunds to donors.

Since each candidate has been running for a different amount of time, we’re adjusting the amounts raised based on the number of days since they started fundraising. (We’re using the first day they recorded a contribution as the start.)


  1. We’re using the widely accepted cutoff of $200 to differentiate small and large donors.

  2. It’s higher than the 9 percent she raised from small donors during a similar period in the 2008 campaign.

  3. In addition to the money Rubio has raised as a presidential candidate, he is using funds previously collected by his Senate campaign. We’re only using the money he’s raised as a presidential candidate for this comparison.

  4. Trump has loaned his campaign about $1.8 million; Chafee has loaned his campaign about $364,000.

Aaron Bycoffe is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.