WASHINGTON — Joe Biden begins the general election far behind President Trump in fundraising — and the coronavirus will likely keep him there through Election Day.
Biden and the Democratic National Committee likely start out the general election almost $200 million behind Trump and the Republican National Committee in cash on hand. Overcoming that huge cash gap was going to be an uphill battle for them under the best of circumstances. But the coronavirus has already begun to slow donations as more and more people face severe economic hardship of their own.
“Trump has an incredible war chest, and that is going to be a challenge for us,” Denise Bauer, a Biden fundraising bundler and former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, told VICE News.
Trump and the RNC announced Monday that they had raised $63 million combined in March alone. Their combined war chest: a whopping $240 million, up from $225 million at the end of February.
Biden and the Democratic National Committee haven’t released their March fundraising figures yet — they don’t have to report them until April 20. And while they both are likely to reveal good fundraising months, as of the end of February, Biden had just $12.1 million in the bank and the DNC had just $14 million.
Biden has never been a strong fundraiser. He trailed badly in the cash race not only to Trump but also to many of his primary rivals, most notably Bernie Sanders. Biden allies said fundraising efforts had finally begun to click as he moved toward cementing the nomination early last month. But now, the coronavirus is slowing those efforts.
“If you look at the trajectory of where we were before the coronavirus, the fundraising was fantastic. After [the Feb. 29 primary in] South Carolina, we were able to raise enormous sums of money,” said Florida-based Biden bundler Andrew Weinstein. “Were it not for this pandemic, we’d be having a very different conversation. The election would look totally different, and the ability to raise would be incredibly different.”
The real human tragedy of the economic downturn is impeding Biden’s ability to catch up as well. A lot of people who would have given under normal circumstances simply can’t.
Biden has struggled especially in this cycle with the small-dollar donors who can give time and again and have powered most successful Democratic campaigns in recent years. Less than 40% of his money through February came from donors who gave $200 or less, compared to 50% for Trump and 54% for Sanders.
And that’s precisely the group that’s going to be least able to give in the coming months as the coronavirus continues to ravage the international economy.
“Those $25 and $50 donors, the waitresses, the auto worker who’s getting laid off, the 30% of the country losing their job: Those are the people we count on for those smaller donations that add up,” said Alan Clendenin, a member of the DNC’s executive board.
Even relatively wealthy people aren’t feeling secure. And those who do have money, security, and an altruistic streak are suddenly facing a pileup of demands from charities desperate for help.
Multiple Biden donation bundlers told VICE News they’d had donors say they couldn’t give, or give as much, as they want to because they’d been personally impacted by the spiraling economic disaster wrought by the coronavirus. And others have decided there were more pressing needs to help people in their communities facing health and economic crises.
"You’re seeing a lot of local need, food banks, charities, schools, there are so many things out there right now.”
“You’re seeing a lot of local need, food banks, charities, schools, there are so many things out there right now that people are trying to do both things at once,” said Bauer. “I’ve had a few people say they’re going to focus more locally.”
Republicans face the same challenge from the tragedy — but since they started out so far ahead, it’s much less of a problem for them.
Big endorsements this week from former President Obama, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will likely help Biden bring in some real cash. Obama’s video endorsing Biden racked up almost 5 million views on Twitter in the first six hours it was live, and Obama followed up with an email asking for donations to his old running mate.
Biden is getting help from many of his other former rivals as well. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg sent a fundraising email to his own expansive donor list on Tuesday asking them to donate to Biden. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) joined him for an online fundraiser last week and has started a joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee whose funds can be used to help Biden. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has an online fundraiser scheduled for next week.
Sanders has refused to commit to doing the same, however: He said Tuesday that he planned to focus his powerful fundraising list on down-ballot candidates.
The DNC is also likely going to have a big month — a huge $18 million donation from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as he dropped out of the race comes on top of whatever else they raised in March.
The inability to do in-person fundraising will make it harder to court big donors. Zoom meetings aren’t exactly as enticing as swanky dinners where you get to meet the candidate. But Democrats see the election as such an existential battle that this election’s donor class hasn’t been as driven by glitz and power as some have in the past.
Democrats say Biden’s team was slow in recalibrating the tone of its donation emails — a March 21 email about his stutter struck one strategist as particularly tin-eared. In recent days, Biden’s team has tried to recalibrate. A recent fundraising email sent out by the campaign from singer Carole King began “If you’re in a position to contribute anything at all, will you pitch in $5 to help Joe Biden become president next year?”
And a Wednesday fundraising email offered to let supporters pause similar emails: “Has the pandemic affected you personally, or do you just want to take a break from emails for a couple weeks? We understand,” it read.
Biden’s allies argue that a cash disadvantage won’t keep him from the White House.Money matters less in a presidential campaign than in down-ballot races since people pay attention to it regardless of ads.. Biden is also well known — he already won the primary even though he was badly outspent by Sanders, Bloomberg, and others. Trump himself was outspent by a wide margin by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he still won.
“The Biden campaign will never catch the Trump campaign in total money raised, but it’s of no concern to me,” said former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chairman Ed Rendell.
But even Obama is worried about Trump’s cash edge.
“It won’t be easy. The other side has a massive war chest,” he warned in his endorsement video.
Cover: Former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a virtual press briefing on a laptop computer in this arranged photograph in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)