Ron DeSantis has money problems.
Tim Scott is on a bit of a spending binge.
Rich candidates are parting with their money, while also-rans are struggling to break through.
As the second-quarter fundraising deadline passed Saturday night, no one is posting eye-popping numbers. Despite Democratic insistence, that includes the incumbent president. Other politicians with established resumes — and donor lists — were forced to spin their unimpressive sums.
Here are six takeaways from a lackluster fundraising quarter:
1. For real, everyone’s a little underwhelming.
Nearly every candidate’s fundraising came with a caveat.
President Joe Biden’s numbers trailed where Donald Trump and Barack Obama were at this point in their reelection cycles. Trump’s topline number was less than expected, based on how enthusiastically a campaign official teased his post-indictment fundraising. DeSantis’ filing has several warning signs, including a fast start that he didn’t sustain and $3 million that he can’t touch until the general election. And Scott still spent more than he raised.
The effects of the mediocre fundraising are already reshaping the race. DeSantis’ campaign is shedding staff, POLITICO reported Saturday. Lower-polling contenders are turning to desperate gimmicks and giveaways to amass the number of donors they need to qualify for the first debate. Some of the bigger topline numbers came simply because candidates with personal wealth, like North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, gave their campaigns some of it.
Small-dollar donors were harder to find. And that’s not only a significant development in the primary, but a warning sign for Republicans looking ahead to the general election, too. Biden may have some difficulty fundraising on his own, but he also appears to be a mediocre fundraising driver for conservatives.
2. Super PACs, your time has come.
Without Trump’s small-donor base, the other Republicans will be increasingly reliant on outside groups, including super PACs, to take over activities that had typically been assigned to the campaigns.
DeSantis’ super PAC Never Back Down is slated to report raising $130 million since forming earlier this year when it files its first FEC report later this month. That sum includes more than $80 million raised by DeSantis as a gubernatorial candidate in Florida. That means Never Back Down is building a shadow campaign with which DeSantis’ operation can’t officially coordinate — but will be counting on to deliver as the candidate scales back his staff.
DeSantis isn’t the only candidate with a super PAC — most of the other serious hopefuls have one, like Trump, Scott, Nikki Haley and Pence. But Saturday’s filing and the staff drawdown already underway underscore how dependent the Florida governor will be on an outside effort to build the giant-slayer operation his allies touted when he entered the race.
3. Trump is still the small-dollar king.
DeSantis’ campaign posted a higher topline number — $20 million in total receipts — than Trump’s campaign committee in the second quarter, with the former president’s campaign coming in at $17 million, largely drawing from his joint fundraising committee, which does not have to file its own financial reports until later this month.
But Trump continues to dominate the rest of the GOP field when it comes to small-dollar donors. DeSantis reported raising just $2.8 million from donors giving less than $200; Trump’s campaign reported receiving $14.6 million in unitemized contributions transferred from his joint fundraising committee.
Other Republicans might be eagerly soliciting donors with offers of merchandise or gift cards in exchange for small donations. But Trump gets those donors anyway.
4. The pro-Biden spin is spinny.
The president and DNC have $77 million in cash on hand. And that’s nothing to sneeze at. But some of the data points being pushed by his surrogates come with real caveats. Take the talking point that Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised more on a per-day basis than Obama did during the 2nd quarter of 2011. It’s true. But it also leaves out the fact that individual donations were capped at $2,500 and national party donations were capped at $30,800 during Obama’s reelect. Today, those caps are $3,300 and $41,300. Or take the talking point that Biden has outraised his main competitors: Trump and DeSantis. Also true. But Biden’s number includes DNC totals. The Republican numbers do not. Biden’s team is certainly happy with the number it posted. But there are clear areas of improvement there.
One place where Biden world’s talking points are quite accurate: He’s running a lean operation. His principal campaign committee reported taking in $19.8 million this quarter, $11.2 million of which was a transfer from his joint fundraising committees. But it spent basically nothing: $1.1 million.
5. The resume isn’t helping Republicans.
Early money isn’t everything. But former governors — and the former vice president — proved in their cash hauls Saturday that in the modern GOP, it doesn’t help much to have credentials.
One of Mike Pence’s few advantages in the 2024 primary was supposed to be a donor network from his time running twice for vice president and, before that, governor of Indiana. But he raised only about $1.1 million since launching his campaign in June. About 25 percent of his haul came from his hometown, Indianapolis, where he raised more than $250,000.
Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, raised $5.3 million. But that was less than the $6.2 million posted by her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Scott, who didn’t even enter the race until more than halfway through the quarter. And that’s to say nothing of former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who raised a paltry $583,000.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who entered the race on June 6, raised $1.7 million.
Pence’s allies point out that he, too, only got into the race last month, with just a few weeks to raise money in the quarter. He also spent a week off the fundraising circuit visiting Ukraine in an effort to demonstrate his foreign policy bonafides. And Pence’s traditional success has come from direct mail, a fundraising method that takes longer to show returns. That’s all fair.
But at this point, despite confidence expressed by Pence’s team that he’ll make the cut, it’s an open question if he’ll meet the 40,000-donor threshold to make the first debate.
6. The August debate is the next real opportunity to change the dynamics of the race.
Now that every major candidate is in the race, this was the fundraising report card everyone was waiting for to see who was worthy of shaking that dreaded “also ran” title. But as POLITICO has written time and again, the state of the GOP primary — and perhaps the general election as well — is more or less exactly what everyone thought it was.
The next big opportunity for candidates is the first Republican debate, scheduled for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee and hosted by Fox News. The lackluster fundraising totals, if anything, put even more pressure on a strong debate performance for candidates not named Trump to shine.
But that’s asking a lot of a debate that Trump has threatened to boycott. If the frontrunner doesn’t participate, the event may lose much of its energy — and its audience. There’s at least even odds that rather than a campaign-altering event, the August debate will wind up being just as underwhelming as the candidates’ second-quarter fundraising.
Adam Wren contributed to this report.