With no in-person rallies or town halls, the 2020 campaign has taken a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic — and so has political fundraising. The latest Federal Election Commission filings are in for the first quarter of 2020, and they show that despite some overall impressive fundraising hauls, many campaigns saw a dip in contributions, especially in March. As campaigns reckon with the fact that 2020 races will not look like earlier iterations, fundraisers are still figuring out how to adjust to the new reality.
Take the 2020 presidential race. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden raised about $74 million in the first quarter, and President Trump raised about $34 million. As you can see in the chart below, Trump experienced a 4 percent drop in March from the month prior, while Biden nearly tripled the amount he made in February. Trump still has almost four times as much cash on hand than Biden has, but the former vice president had a particularly strong first quarter, perhaps in part because of a series of March primary wins that helped cement his position as the presumptive nominee.
Overall, federal candidates — including Trump and Biden — received more than $1.6 billion in the first quarter, and political action committees and party committees received more than $1.3 billion and $258 million, respectively.1 As you can see in the chart below, PACs were able to outpace their growth from February in March, while fundraising for candidates and party committees slowed.
This doesn’t mean everyone saw a dip in March fundraising. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example, raised about $11 million in March, up about $2 million from what it raised in February.
Part of this might be cyclical. Operatives tell me that the days and weeks leading up to a quarterly FEC fundraising deadline are usually when campaigns kick their fundraising operations into full gear.
“Mid-to-late March would typically be prime time and when you’re holding as many events as possible,” said Don Goris, president of the conservative fundraising consulting firm Campaign Resource Group, which operates out of western Michigan. When things started to shut down in mid-March, Goris said, his reaction was “Oh boy, what is this going to do for our end of quarter push?”
The shift away from physical events, in addition to the state of the economy, has stressed political fundraising, and campaigns now must figure out ways to raise money that don’t involve groups of people gathering in one place.
Still, it’s a sensitive time to be asking Americans for money, as the economy faces a recession and at least 22 million Americans are unemployed. But dramatically pulling back fundraising efforts could lead to greater costs down the road, said Catherine Algeri, chief strategy officer at Democratic fundraising firm Chapman Cubine and Hussey. In 2008, her firm saw that candidates who spent less on acquiring donors and growing their email lists during the financial crisis struggled the most afterwards trying to build back up that infrastructure.
Some campaigns are now relying more on virtual tools and platforms to meet their fundraising goals. The last in-person event that Shari Yost Gold, a veteran fundraiser whose consulting firm worked with Sen. Kamala Harris and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaigns, helped organize was on March 10 in New York. Now, Yost Gold is helping her clients fundraise over video conferencing software like Zoom.
Yost Gold said Zoom works really well for small, targeted groups, but she’s found that larger virtual events are harder. Those larger events are also often critical in raising money, particularly from big, hundred-dollar donors. Connecting with those donors remains a priority, Yost Gold said, because she’s not sure if the small-dollar donors on whom Democrats have relied will continue to increase in number or will taper off.
Of course, not all campaigns are set up to fundraise successfully online. For instance, many leaner campaigns in smaller House districts often get by with “more old-school campaign methodologies like knocking on doors, and in-person gatherings,” Goris told me, adding that often digital fundraising is just less of a priority. But ramping up digital efforts in the coming weeks may be the only option available.
Yost Gold told me she was really pushing her clients to embrace digital outreach, as she doesn’t think Democrats will “have even 30 people in somebody’s house doing a fundraiser before the end of this election cycle.”
Of course, other fundraisers are more hopeful that in-person events can still take place at some point.
“If things start to normalize and improve, we have things we would like to plan. I guess, we are planning to plan, is the way to put it,” said Elizabeth Williams, an Alabama fundraiser working with mostly federal candidates. “As you get in later in the summer and fall, we would hope there can be more in-person events.”
Like everyone else, political fundraisers are trying to adapt to what each week (or day) brings in this global pandemic. But some fundraisers are hopeful because, as Williams puts it, this situation has made the importance of good government clear. “I think donors will want to support candidates who are capable of handling situations like this,” she said.