Does it matter that Democrats are raising more money than Republicans?

538 breaks down the latest presidential, Senate and House fundraising reports.

April 17, 2024, 5:02 PM

Welcome to 538's politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and senior elections analyst): It may be impolite, but today I want to talk about money! Specifically, how much of it the candidates on the ballot in 2024 are raising. Monday was the deadline for Senate and House candidates to disclose their fundraising numbers for the first quarter of 2024, and while presidential fundraising numbers aren't due until Saturday, both Team Biden and Team Trump have announced their March fundraising numbers already.

And that's where I want to start, actually. President Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic National Committee say they raised a combined $90 million in March, while former President Donald Trump's campaign and the Republican National Committee say they combined for $66 million. Democrats have an even wider advantage in cash on hand: $192 million to $93 million. But my first question is simple: Does it really matter that Republicans are so far behind in the money race?

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, politics reporter): It doesn't not matter, though I know that's an unsatisfying answer. In a race in which both candidates are household names and — despite Trump's current deficit — will raise and spend gobs of money before the election is over, these differences aren't going to make or break a campaign.

Money never guarantees success (my go-to example of this is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's billion-dollar losing bid for president in 2020), but it's not irrelevant. Money buys ads, campaign workers, billboards, yard signs and T-shirts with your respective campaign meme on them. All of this helps get out the vote, get a candidate's message out and (especially in this race) possibly challenge voters' preconceived notions of the candidates and what they bring to the table. That's valuable, but having more digits in your receipts column for Q1 doesn't equate to a decisive advantage.

nrakich: Yeah. Just to rewind four years, in March 2020, Trump and the RNC raised $63 million and had $240 million cash on hand. Meanwhile, Biden (who, in fairness, was not yet the presumptive Democratic nominee) raised just $47 million and had just $26 million cash on hand. Obviously, Biden ended up winning the election.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): I think that's right, Kaleigh. In the long run, a consistent spending advantage for one candidate could matter. For instance, if Biden were to steadily outspend Trump on ads in swing states down the stretch, that could make a slight difference in his support, as we've seen in past campaigns.

However, with the amounts involved in a presidential race, campaign spending can have diminishing returns. Moreover, Trump got an incredible $5.9 billion in earned media (that is, free publicity) in the 2016 campaign, dwarfing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's $2.8 billion and arguably minimizing her almost 2-to-1 edge in more traditional campaign spending.

The point is, a lot goes into how Biden and Trump will appeal to voters and how much they'll be in people's faces through the media. And neither will lack for money in the end, so it's mainly just a question of whether either one can sustain a significant financial lead throughout much of the campaign. My guess is no.

nrakich: But Geoffrey, there's a unique wrinkle this year, which is that Trump has been using campaign cash to help pay off his legal bills. If his money keeps going toward that and not T-shirts with memes on them, wouldn't that be a problem for him?

geoffrey.skelley: If Trump keeps using significant campaign cash to pay his legal bills for months to come, then yes, that could help Biden maintain the kind of significant spending edge that might have a real effect. But as is often the case, it's best to wait and see at this point. No one should be equating Biden's current fundraising lead with the idea that Biden has a superior campaign.

nrakich: Yeah, especially since, this year, it was Trump who faced a competitive primary and only recently started jointly fundraising with the RNC. Incumbents always have an advantage in early fundraising because of that.

And Trump will probably be able to basically print money going forward. He just held a mega-fundraiser in Florida that his campaign claims brought in over $50 million — a record for a single event.

OK, let's move on to the fun stuff now — the battle for control of Congress. What was the most important takeaway from Senate fundraising reports, in your guys' opinions?

kaleigh: The most obvious takeaway for me is that Democrats are putting money where they need it most and fundraising like crazy in the battleground Senate races where they're hoping to hold (or flip!) seats. Democrats outraised Republicans in every single competitive race except Wisconsin, and that was only because GOP candidate Eric Hovde topped up his campaign with $8 million of his own funds in his bid to unseat Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

nrakich: Yeah, eight of the 10 biggest first-quarter fundraisers among Senate candidates were Democrats:

kaleigh: As we've mentioned many times here already, Democrats have a very slim majority in the Senate right now and are the underdogs going into 2024 because they're defending more seats than Republicans. And in a number of cases, they're doing so in states where they don't have an obvious partisan advantage (or, in some cases, like West Virginia, where they have a distinct disadvantage).

So in an attempt to hold onto the Senate, they're fundraising hard in the races where they really need it.

geoffrey.skelley: Democrats have built a big edge with this particular set of Senate seats (Class I, in Senate parlance) thanks to good election cycles in 2000, 2006, 2012 and 2018. So, Democrats have to defend seats they hold not only in red states like Ohio and Montana (West Virginia is all but certain to flip), but also in 50-50 states, too, like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Having to retain all of those seats to have a shot at keeping their majority will be a tough gap to shoot.

But to Kaleigh's point: In theory, the toughest seats for Democrats to hold this cycle (after Ohio and Montana) should be the open seats in Arizona and Michigan. And the likely Democratic nominees in both states notably outraised their GOP opposition. In Arizona, Rep. Ruben Gallego brought in a startling $7.5 million, far more than likely Republican nominee Kari Lake's $3.6 million. In Michigan, Rep. Elissa Slotkin raised $4.4 million, more than four times the total for former Rep. Mike Rogers, probably the front-runner for the GOP nod there.

kaleigh: It's also notable that Lake was the GOP's candidate for governor in 2022 and was among the many notably weak candidates Republicans put forward that year who helped Democrats do much better than anticipated in the midterms. Though that was a close race, it's interesting that the party is betting on Lake again in another high-stakes election.

nrakich: And it's not just those seats. In a recent article, CNN's Matt Holt highlighted just how much more cash on hand Democrats have than Republicans in nearly all competitive Senate races:

Similar to the presidential race, at what point is this a problem for Republicans?

geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel, that could certainly help Democrats on the margins. However, campaign spending is most helpful to candidates with whom voters are unfamiliar — that is, challengers. And most of these key seats involve Democratic incumbents. So I wouldn't overstate how much this early advantage will matter.

Still, one reason why this edge is helpful for Democratic candidates is that it's cheaper for candidate committees to buy ad time than it is for outside groups. Republican-supporting super PACs will have to spend more to get equivalent ad time, so they will have to put in even more cash to make up for any cash shortages for GOP candidates. And these incumbents will have the resources necessary to combat high spending by challengers and outside groups, which is meaningful.

nrakich: It's also possible that the GOP candidates' cash shortages won't even be that bad. Republicans have adopted a deliberate strategy of recruiting rich guys to run for Senate this year, meaning they can self-fund their campaigns — like Hovde in Wisconsin, as Kaleigh mentioned. Other examples are Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania, Bernie Moreno in Ohio and Tim Sheehy in Montana. The multimillion-dollar question, though, is how much they're willing to dip into their own pockets.

kaleigh: What the fundraising numbers show, more so than any clear electoral advantage, is in which of these tough races the Democratic powers that be think they have the best shot.

nrakich: All right, let's wrap up with some House fundraising talk. What stood out to you guys in the lower chamber?

geoffrey.skelley: There was a fair bit of good news for Democrats in the House. Challengers outraised incumbents in 20 seats that ratings outlets view as at least somewhat competitive, and 16 of those incumbents were Republicans. And five of those Republicans have challengers who both outraised them this quarter and have more money in the bank overall: Reps. David Schweikert, Mike Garcia, Ken Calvert, Mike Lawler and Marc Molinaro.

Impressively, most of that fundraising didn't involve self-funding, although the leading fundraiser among Schweikert's Democratic challengers (trading firm executive Conor O'Callaghan) self-funded around 40 percent of his haul in the first quarter of 2024.

Democrats also outraised Republicans in some vital open seats, like Michigan's 7th and 8th districts, California's 47th District and Colorado's 3rd District. That Colorado seat is the one Rep. Lauren Boebert left behind to run in Colorado's 4th District, which is much redder, after she barely eked out reelection in 2022. But her 2022 Democratic opponent, Adam Frisch, has continued to bring in huge sums, garnering $1.4 million to start out 2024. That ranked as one of the highest totals for any non-incumbent this quarter and could allow him to once again put in play a seat that Trump would have carried by 8 points in 2020.

kaleigh: That's something I was interested in as well, Geoffrey. Those open Michigan seats are going to be races to watch. They're both districts that lean blue but are far from safely Democratic, and once again I think the fundraising numbers reveal which races Democrats see as their best opportunities to score a win.

geoffrey.skelley: Both of those Michigan seats involve Republican candidates who lost in 2022, too: former state Sen. Tom Barrett in the 7th and former Trump administration official Paul Junge in the 8th. They're bringing in money (Junge has self-funded most of his campaign), but each was significantly outraised by their leading Democratic opponent.

nrakich: I think what caught my eye the most were actually the numbers from a key primary matchup, not the general election. In New York's 16th District, Westchester County Executive George Latimer significantly outraised Rep. Jamaal Bowman $2.2 million to $1.3 million. That's a really significant advantage over an incumbent, and it underscores that Bowman may be in serious danger of being ousted this year.

kaleigh: We are all cut from the same cloth around here. I was also eyeballing some of the primary fundraising!

geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel, don't even get me started about all the notable fundraising reports from contentious primary races. For instance, the solidly Democratic Maryland 3rd saw a jaw-dropping $3.8 million first quarter from former police officer Harry Dunn — with no self-funding. But Dunn, who was on duty on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol and used that as part of his opening pitch, does have competition from other Democrats vying for the seat, including state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who raised a bit more than $500,000. Still, if Dunn can keep that fundraising pace up, it'll be really hard to contend with the ads he can run in the Baltimore TV market.

Anyway, we don't have the space to hit on every interesting primary contest. But in a world where most House seats aren't competitive, there are plenty of fascinating and potentially expensive primary battles on tap.

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