By Jonathan Swan - 03/21/16 04:49 PM EDT
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Trump camp talking points: Mention Monica Lewinsky Trump floats theory that Google suppresses negative news on Clinton MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Congress departs for recess until after Election Day House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown MORE are the front-runners for each party’s presidential nomination, but while Clinton is grinding through the old-fashioned way — paying a large ground staff, buying television and digital advertising — her most likely general election rival is still largely taking advantage of free cable and network coverage, according to their campaigns’ most recent balance sheets.
Trump's rivals, Ted CruzTed CruzHouse approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? MORE and John Kasich, find themselves in trickier spots, the latest federal election filings reveal. Both are under financial pressure — Kasich more so than Cruz — which throws doubt on their ability to overcome the advantages of their billionaire rival, who has 100 percent name ID and a historic ability to manipulate the media.
Commentators have begun saying that after months of coasting on free media coverage — close to $2 billion worth, according to a New York Times analysis — Trump is finally tapping into his own pockets to fund his campaign. That’s only partly true.
A closer examination of the latest FEC filings reveals the billionaire’s campaign actually spent less money ($9.5 million) in February than it did in January ($11.5 million). The largest portion of that spend was on media buys.
Of the $9 million Trump’s campaign received in February, about $2 million came from donors, most of them contributing in amounts smaller than $200. The rest came from a loan he made to his campaign.
To put the Republican front-runner’s minuscule spending in perspective, consider that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton spent $31.4 million in February, which is only slightly less than the total amount spent by the Trump campaign since the real estate developer entered the race last June.
Clinton, like all of Trump’s competitors, doesn’t have the billionaire’s knack for commanding 24/7 cable and network news coverage, meaning she has to buy media the old-fashioned way.
Trump has often gloated about his cheapskate campaign, saying his frugality proves he is better qualified to manage the national treasury than rivals like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on whose behalf donors burned more than $120 million. The latest filings show that Trump has loaned his campaign $24 million to date, and this is cash Trump could ultimately recoup if he wants to, though campaign manager Corey Lewandowski insists the billionaire will not seek repayment.
With the possible exception of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — and it’s a heavily qualified exception, because Carson’s campaign recycled much of its fundraising back into GOP consultants’ pockets — Cruz has built the most formidable fundraising operation in Republican politics this cycle.
Cruz’s fundraising machine is also the most well-rounded: He is attracting significant amounts of cash from billionaires (into his allied super-PACs), mid-tier donors, and grassroots supporters writing checks of $200 or less.
But Cruz’s campaign is now spending more than it is taking in. During February, his campaign spent $17.5 million and raised $11.8 million. He entered March with about $8 million on hand.
And while Cruz’s February fundraising grew from January, if his campaign’s spending trend accelerates, the Texas senator could find himself in a tight spot before too long. Unlike Trump — and even Bush, who put about $800,000 of his own money into his campaign as it fell on hard times — Cruz does not have a personal fortune to dip into if he falls into financial trouble.
Given that Cruz cannot lean on the free media Trump routinely enjoys, the Texan’s fundraisers will be working extra hard over the coming months to ensure he has enough to fund his expansive ground game. Helping him is the fact that his network of super-PACs still has some $20 million on hand, according to The Hill’s calculations of their March FEC filings.
Kasich insists he is going to run a national campaign, competing vigorously everywhere until the Republican Party comes together in Cleveland for what the Kasich forces hope will be a contested convention (his only chance of winning the nomination).
But while the Ohio governor’s campaign is implausible from a delegate perspective — he needs to win more than 100 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination outright — his campaign is also looking increasingly implausible from a fundraising point of view.
Consider the raw numbers. Kasich’s campaign had $1.25 million in the bank as it entered March. It raised $3.4 million during the month of February (less than Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Finance: Congress poised to avoid shutdown | Yellen defends Fed from Trump | Why Obama needs PhRMA on trade Trump mocks Clinton for stumbling while sick with pneumonia Brent Budowsky: Sanders and Warren shine MORE raised in a single day). And throughout his entire campaign, Kasich has raised only $12 million. These are not the dollar figures of a top-tier presidential candidate.
Unless the GOP donor class rallies around Kasich in a big way — and this appears unlikely given many, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamHouse approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown White House, business disappointed over lack of Ex-Im provision in spending bill Overnight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq MORE, are urging him to clear the field for Cruz — he will be running on financial fumes before too long.
Sanders has received most of the media attention, and justly so, for his extraordinary small-dollar fundraising operation, but in any other year Clinton’s fundraising machine would have been a major story.
The former secretary of State invested early in a sprawling national campaign infrastructure, and there were concerns early on that her burn rate (expenses versus income) would become unsustainable. Instead, Clinton’s fundraising has proved durable, and she had another solid month in February, taking in $29.5 million and spending $31.6 million. Her campaign finished the month with $30.8 million in the bank.
And one of the most under-reported stories is the quiet, steady strength of Clinton’s strongest supporting super-PAC, Priorities USA Action, which raised a further $4.9 million in February and entered March with $44.5 million on hand, making it easily the best-funded super-PAC left in the presidential race on either side of politics.
Unlike Republican super-PACs, like the now defunct Right to Rise and Conservative Solutions PAC — which had to spend aggressively in a brutal primary season to help failed candidates Bush and Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioLanny Davis: Clinton a clear winner, with or without sound Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? Koch-linked veterans group launches ads in Senate battlegrounds MORE — Clinton’s super-PAC has had the luxury of a relatively civilized primary contest against Sanders. Clinton is now in a strong enough delegate position to leave Priorities USA operatives feeling confident about its decision to hoard the vast majority of its cash for the general.
Sanders is already the most formidable grassroots fundraiser in American political history, and in February he kept the surge going, out-raising Clinton by $14 million over the month. The Vermont senator raised $43.5 million in February, but he also spent more aggressively than his rival, outlaying $40.9 million that left him with only slightly more than half the money Clinton had in the bank at the beginning of March.
Sanders’s team has been rapidly opening offices in target states and has blitzed the airwaves, such as in Michigan, where the Sanders team invested heavily and pulled off an unlikely victory.
But despite his heavy spending, one thing is certain about Sanders’s political future: His presidential bid will not fail for lack of money. While Sanders seems unlikely to amass the delegates necessary to beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he will have enough cash to compete to the convention if that’s what he wants to do — and he’s given every sign that he intends to keep pushing his progressive message all the way to Philadelphia.