It’s the money, stupid: Donors decide to winnow the Democratic presidential field

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and even Mayor Pete Buttigieg are out-fundraising former Vice President Joe Biden.
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and even Mayor Pete Buttigieg are out-fundraising former Vice President Joe Biden. File photo illustration

Turns out, the scramble for political money has become far more decisive in the Democratic primary races than any of their policy papers or tedious TV debates.

And in that money contest, former Vice President Joe Biden has also become the former front-runner for 2020. He’s now lagging far behind the new frontrunners: Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and — wait for it — Pete Buttigieg, the fresh-faced Indiana mayor.

It’s still three months until the Iowa caucuses kick off Democrats’ crucial decision-making among actual voters. But fresh third-quarter campaign finance reports indicate donors are already picking winners in the still-crowded field. And they’re also picking losers, some of whom may not even make it to the first voting.

And then there’s the current White House occupant, President Donald Trump, whose campaign apparatus reported raising an additional $125 million in the third quarter of the year, historically the slowest fundraising time of year. Trump’s take is almost twice the combined quarterly sums of the top three Democrats.

Incumbent presidents usually outraise their competitors, especially when they’re basically unchallenged. But they don’t usually possess $158 million in cash on hand 54 weeks before the election.

In 2012, incumbent Barack Obama’s abundant cash trove enabled him to start massive ad spending in June to define his opponent, Mitt Romney, as an out-of-touch wealthy man. Without a matching campaign treasury, Romney was unable to compete in the advertising battle until September. By then, impressions were set.

Of course, money alone is no election guarantee. Hillary Clinton raised $1.4 billion in 2016. Trump collected $442 million less.

Trump is likely to repeat Obama’s strategy next year, once his opponent becomes clear. Despite a front-loaded primary schedule, that may be a while as Democrats eager to oust Trump are fueling several candidates for the long run. Buttigieg, who’s positioning himself as a more moderate, commonsense Midwestern progressive, collected $19.1 million in the third quarter, plus another million in the 24 hours after last week’s debate.

With an immense small-donor base left over from his 2016 run, Sanders led the quarterly primary field with $25.3 million, followed closely by Warren’s small donation crowd who anted up $24.6 million, up from the second quarter’s $19 million, matching her gains in recent polls.

“Because of you and your support,” Warren told supporters, “we’ll be able to run this campaign the right way. That means no corporate PAC money, no private fundraisers just for people that can write big checks.” That may sound virtuous to her fellow crusaders now, but it becomes problematic in a general election when intensity builds, and the huge bucks kick in.

We’ll get to Joe in a minute. The other Democrats’ quarterly fundraising ranged from Kamala Harris’ $11.6 million and Andrew Yang’s $10 million down to Michael Bennet’s $2.1 million. Cory Booker collected about $6 million and Amy Klobuchar $4.8 million, augmented by another million after her debate performance.

Biden’s third-quarter haul was $15.2 million. A spokesman claimed the total “puts the campaign in a strong position as we enter the fall.” However, despite staging 43 summer fundraising events, that’s more than $6 million less than Biden’s donations after his April launch. Last week, the Biden campaign quietly pleaded with would-be donors:

“I hate to say it, but our opponents are way ahead of us when it comes to money in the bank…. That could give them a huge leg up going into the next phase of this race. If we don’t pick up the pace here, we might have to make budget cuts.”

Though Biden trails now in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, he’s running a large national campaign operation. They are expensive beasts with salaries, field offices and travel. While no one expects an ex-vice president with a Secret Service detail to stay at Super 8, neither is he required to stay at swanky, luxury hotels, as Biden prefers.

Like about two-thirds of the increasingly desperate field of Democratic candidates, Biden spent more last quarter than he took in, about $2 million more, including more than $1 million for private jets. During his vice-presidential travels, Biden’s party more than once ran up hotel bills in excess of $500,000 — for one night.

More importantly perhaps in the eyes of donors, Biden has been less than attentive to supporters, a problem during his aborted 1988 run, too.

Biden’s debate performances have been unsteady, not sharp. They often feature run-on answers with wandering details that seem confusing, even irrelevant, raising questions about his mental focus and advanced age. Biden turns 77 next month — he’s a year younger than Sanders, seven years older than Warren and four beyond Trump.

Those ages are quite the contrast with, for example, Pete Buttiegieg. He’s a multilingual, naval combat veteran who looks about 19, although he’s actually 37. Let’s see, that would put Mayor Pete in fourth grade when Biden became a senator, a handy detail in case, say, advanced ages become a primary burden this cycle.