Most of the time, my job is to unspin this type of information and figure out what’s really going on beneath the surface. But when it comes to this quarter’s money data, I don’t even have to do that. Historical data suggests that polling is a much more accurate indicator of where the race is going than third-quarter fundraising in the year before the primaries. And, so far, there aren’t many surprises in the data that need to be explained away. Warren raised tons of money as she surged. Joe Biden, who shares the title of front-runner with Warren, posted worse numbers. Sanders and Buttigieg, both talented fundraisers in the second-to-third tier, raked in the cash. And dark horses such as Booker managed to stay afloat. Aside from Andrew Yang’s solid haul, fundraising didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.
I used some simple, back-of-the-envelope stats to get a handle on how much fundraising usually helps us predict primary results* — and I found that, once you’ve taken polling data into account, third-quarter fundraising data doesn’t provide us with any extra insights into who is going to win. This isn’t a definitive, conversation-ending finding: this sort of math involves complex choices about what variables to use, how to pick out the most important pieces from the avalanche of data from the FEC and how to average polls. Other analysts might slice the data another way and come to somewhat different conclusions.
But my math does match common sense. Polling is simply a more direct measure of support for a candidate than fundraising data.
A candidate who has a dedicated but small base of support, such as Ron Paul did during the 2008 Republican primary, can raise a boatload of money while still having basically no chance of winning the nomination. While his supporters are willing and able to give substantial amounts of money, there still aren’t an overwhelming number of them. And serious candidates can lag in early fundraising. Donald Trump’s campaign organization was lackluster and his fundraising was uninspiring at this point during the 2016 campaign, and he’s the president now. Primary money isn’t completely decoupled from electoral success — Mitt Romney raised a lot in 2011 and Lincoln Chafee raised very little in 2015 — but as a general rule, good polling has been a more reliable sign of success than good fundraising.
So if you want to get a good read of where the horse race is now and where it might be going, take polling more seriously than cash. Sanders had a genuinely solid quarter in the money race, but that hasn’t translated to a growth in real support. He’s still stuck under 20 percent in national polls with no apparent, viable plan to expand. Biden didn’t have an amazing fundraising quarter, but that hasn’t stopped him from maintaining his base and staying near the top in the polls. Warren jumped to second place in the money race this quarter, but anyone who is watching the survey data already knows she’s gaining — over the past few months she’s gone from second-to-third tier candidate to essentially tied with Biden for the top-spot nationally. No one should seriously revise their view of any of the major candidates based on their fundraising haul.
The only truly interesting data point from the latest batch of fundraising figures was Andrew Yang’s haul of more than $10 million. Yang has always been a long shot for the nomination, and this influx of cash doesn’t change that fact. But, as others have noted, it makes him look more like the Ron Paul of this cycle: someone with a signature idea (universal basic income for Yang, the gold standard for Paul), an uncommon political outlook (libertarianism for Paul, postliberalism for Yang), a devoted base of oddball followers, and the ability to rake in surprising amounts of cash.
Paul obviously never won the Republican nomination and the GOP never had a libertarian moment. But Paul’s dovishness and penchant for conspiracy theories became part of the GOP mainstream as Trump ascended to the nomination and the White House. Yang’s fundraising numbers suggest that some part of his approach and platform resonated deeply within a segment of the Democratic Party. So even if Yang loses, which he almost assuredly will, Yang-ism may survive to exert an unexpected influence in the future.
* i.e., regression analysis using the percentage of all individual contributions each candidate received and a three-month polling average to predict final primary vote share.