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4 takeaways from the first fundraising reports of the 2020 campaign

Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives for a rally in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 2. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
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We finally have the first concrete data with which to judge the 2020 presidential race: fundraising numbers.

The first-quarter reports, which cover money raised and spent from January to March, were due by Monday at midnight. And while we’ve known about some of the big numbers for a while thanks to the campaigns announcing them, the actual reports provide plenty more detail.

Some have wagered that these numbers don’t actually matter post-2016, when President Trump won despite being far outspent. But that’s overly simplistic. Money isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it does signify momentum and campaign potency, and it helps you hone and get your message out. You’d rather have it than not. And for the many Democrats struggling to get noticed, it’s a pretty good gauge of where they’re at.

Let’s look at a few of the biggest takeaways. (And make sure to check out Michelle Ye Hee Lee’s story on what the 2020 Democrats’ numbers tell us.)

1. The Bernie base is back

I’ll admit I was one of those who questioned whether Sen. Bernie Sanders would be able to replicate his 2016 momentum in 2020. Perhaps that success was more about reservations Democrats had about Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the inclusion of more Sanders-esque opponents such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would eat away at Sanders’s base. Maybe his moment had simply passed.

But the Vermont independent’s first-quarter fundraising haul served notice that he might start this race as the front-runner. He raised more than $18 million, tops in the Democratic field. He also had the most donors, the lowest average contribution and the highest percentage of his haul raised from donations of less than $200 among the top candidates.

There is a case to be made that he was simply reactivating a base that he already cultivated in 2016 and that it was easier because of that. But that’s also kind of the point: While the dozen or so other top candidates are fighting among one another for their own bases of support, he has one built in, and it gave him a nice head start.

2. Buttigieg-mentum

If you had said the mayor of South Bend, Ind., would outraise four sitting U.S. senators in the first quarter, I’m not sure who would have believed you. But that’s what happened. Pete Buttigieg’s $7.1 million trumped Warren ($6 million), Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar ($5.2 million), New Jersey’s Cory Booker ($5.1 million) and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand ($3 million).

Even better for Buttigieg is his abnormally low burn rate — i.e., the amount of that total he spent. While the other top candidates generally spent in the millions, he spent just $666,000 even as he was gaining traction.

The haul confirmed that Buttigieg could be more than just a passing fancy in the Democratic field, assuming he can seize the moment and build a real presidential campaign.

3. Trump’s head-start

Among the many norms President Trump has shed has been the one that says presidents should wait until the presidential election cycle to start raising money. While other presidents dating back to at least Ronald Reagan decided that fundraising could wait, Trump started almost instantly after his 2016 win.

And now he has the head-start to prove it. He had built up a $19.2 million fund heading into 2019, and his campaign raised more than $30 million in the first quarter. He now has more than $40 million in the bank.

That’s hardly unheard-of for a sitting president — Barack Obama raised $46 million in the first quarter he actively raised money in 2011 — but it does suggest Trump’s fundraising will be more robust than when he won the presidency. The emphasis on it is also somewhat new from a president who probably doesn’t want to have to dip into his own pockets again.

Trump also raised about as much as the top two Democratic candidates (Sanders’s $18 million and California Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s $12 million) combined. Democrats will point out that their entire field combined raised significantly more — north of $90 million, actually — which is a fair point. But they’ll be spending that money trying to beat one another, and there is no guarantee all that money will suddenly be going to the victor.

And even if it did, Trump would have that head-start.

4. The slow-starters

If you had to pick the most underwhelming numbers in the first quarter, it’d have to be Gillibrand and Warren.

I say Gillibrand because it was the lowest of a sitting senator, and because she has the New York City donor base in her home state.

As for Warren, it’s because she has been in the race since Day One of the first quarter (unlike the others) and has raised such huge sums as a senator. She wound up finishing fifth behind Sanders, Harris, former congressman Beto O’Rourke ($9.3 million) and Buttigieg. She also spent the most of the top contenders (more than $5.2 million), which means her existing campaign kitty is almost entirely leftover from her Senate campaigns.

To the extent the conventional wisdom is correct about Warren competing for Sanders’s base, she didn’t seem to get much of its money. That doesn’t mean she’s sunk, but it wasn’t the performance you’d expect from a front-runner.

Lee contributed to this report.