Opinion How GOP donors can get the best value for their money

Nikki Haley at a town hall in Urbandale, Iowa, on Feb. 20. (Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg News)
5 min

Imagine you’re a middle-class Republican with $50 to spare on a 2024 campaign. But like baseball general manager Billy Beane of “Moneyball” fame, you want to translate your money into real wins. What would you do? And when would you do it?

It’s a fun question — and an increasingly important one given that the GOP is trying to grow its small-dollar donor base. So I dug into the data, spoke with campaign pros and found the answer: It all depends on what you want to do with your money.

Trump-skeptical GOP loyalists should move money ASAP.

Some Republican voters are content with the down-ballot GOP but want someone other than Donald Trump to lead the party. Their best option: Pick a viable Trump challenger, and give them the $50 as soon as they declare their run.

Matt Terrill, managing partner at Firehouse Strategies, said early contributions — especially from small-dollar donors — matter. “I suspect if you ask any candidate, most or all of them will tell you they’d much rather reach or exceed their fundraising targets with a lot of small-dollar donors than with a handful of big donors.” Early small-dollar donations signal grass-roots support, provide candidates with a pool of potential volunteers and help them survive a long primary.

The data supports Terrill’s assessment. In the 2016 GOP primary, the best small-dollar fundraisers survived past the early states and competed on Super Tuesday.

Not all of these candidates were good investments. Ben Carson ran his campaign more like a book tour than a serious presidential bid. And then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who won only his home state — continued his quixotic run long after it was clear he had no path.

But for Trump’s opponents, a solid early fundraising haul is necessary. They need to build a campaign fast to compete with a former president. So if a small-dollar donor wants to stop Trump, they should discern which of his opponents are serious and donate as soon as they declare a run.

MAGA populists might want to hold off.

Other Republicans want to double down on populism. Trump is currently their first choice in the 2024 primary, and they often grumble about “the establishment” or “RINOs” in Congress.

For these voters, the smart move might not be to donate to Trump.

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Trump is a billionaire, and it’s early in the campaign. He doesn’t need an extra $50 right now. And if he runs into financial trouble down the road, populists can then decide if he’s still their best investment.

But if Trump sails to the nomination, his supporters will be glad they held onto their money. They’ll be able to spend on competitive down-ballot races, where anti-establishment Republicans are often strapped for cash.

Trump’s 2022 endorsees offer an instructive case study.

Many of Trump’s 2022 endorsees were bad fundraisers because they were scandal-ridden or awkward on the stump. But some — such as Ohio’s J.D. Vance — were populist true believers caught in a tough primary. A little extra money might help them more than Trump.

True Never Trump donors should look down-ballot.

Full-blooded Never Trump Republicans should also look down-ballot — but for different reasons.

There are no viable Never Trump options in the presidential race. The top Trump alternatives — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence — all supported Trump, worked in his administration or adopted his policy positions. None represents a clean break from Trumpism.

That leaves Never Trump purists with two possible routes: Look down-ballot, or give to President Biden.

If Never Trump Republicans give down-ballot, they should keep their expectations low. Five House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack ran against Trump endorsees in 2022. While all of them won the money race, only one won re-nomination.

But backing dissenters might still be preferable to donating to Biden. As GOP strategist Jason Roe told me, “If you want to change the direction of the party, you have to keep fighting within the party.”

For GOP policies, invest in someone you’ve never heard of.

Some Republicans are less interested in the politicians and more in GOP policies. For them, the “Moneyball” move is to skip the presidential race entirely.

Tufts University political science professor Eitan Hersh told me, “If there is a candidate at the local level who conveys your policy values really well, and they’re 25 and they really want to make a political career — no bigshots are going to invest in this person.” A $50 donation — just a drop in the bucket for Trump or DeSantis — can make a real difference in a county judge or state legislature race.

Donors who give to these small, local campaigns might miss the thrill of participating in a Trump vs. anti-Trump brawl or a hotly contested House race. But they’ll make the biggest impact possible — and make their inner Billy Beane proud.