Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton technically beat Bernie Sanders by $2 million in the chase for campaign cash over the past three months. But that isn't the story — not even close.
Clinton held 58 fundraising events to raise her total; Sanders held seven. As of the end of September, Sanders had brought in 1.3 million total donations from 650,000 individuals since he began running. Clinton's campaign did not release how many total donors she has. And Sanders ended September with $25 million in the bank; Clinton did not release how much money her campaign had on hand.
Read between the lines, and you get this: Sanders is drawing huge amounts of small-dollar donations via the Web. That means two important things: (1) Sanders has been able to concentrate on meeting and greeting potential voters rather than spending his time courting donors, and (2) He has been able to conserve money because he isn't spending cash on lavish events for donors.
Money is, of course, a sign of broader trends in the race as well. Sanders is the grass-roots candidate who is appealing to the heart of the party base; Clinton is the lead candidate, accruing donations — at least in part — out of a sense that, in the end, she will be the nominee. Hence, lots of people are sending small-dollar donations to Sanders while Clinton holds more traditional fundraising events to collect cash from the usual suspects.
That story line is — as you might have guessed — not a good one for Clinton. It reinforces everything that people already believe about the dynamics of the contest — that Sanders is the energy candidate who is speaking the language of the base and that Clinton continues to struggle to inspire that sort of devotion and passion.
Then, of course, there is the simple fact that if I told you six months ago that Sanders would (1) raise $25 million in a single fundraising quarter and (2) would come within a few million dollars of Clinton, you would not have believed me. No way.
Sanders, who began this campaign as an oddity, now has every vestige of a serious candidate — from crowds to organization to money. And he has the one thing that Clinton badly wants/needs: energy.
There are practical realities of Sanders's fundraising, too. Having $25 million in the bank, and having raised $40 million, Sanders will now be able to get his message out — largely via TV ads — in at least Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton and her aligned super PAC will still outspend Sanders on TV, but it won't be totally lopsided or at least as lopsided as everyone, including Sanders and his team, expected.
Sometimes, top-line numbers don't tell the whole story. This is one of those cases. Yes, Clinton raised the most money. But, make no mistake: This is Sanders's quarter.
Update 12:06 p.m.: Clinton's campaign says it has at least $32 million cash on hand, compared to Sanders's $25 million.