In the Republican and Democratic primaries alike, upstart candidates shunned by their parties’ major donors are financially competitive with — and, in some cases, vastly outraising — establishment opponents.
The establishment-backed presidential candidates in both parties, facing stronger-than-expected challenges from insurgent campaigns, are rapidly losing one of their few remaining advantages in politics: money.
In the Republican and Democratic primaries alike, upstart candidates shunned by their parties’ major donors are financially competitive with — and, in some cases, vastly outraising — opponents who have spent months or even years wooing the big-name donors and fundraisers who have traditionally dominated the presidential money race.
The shift is most striking in the Republican contest, where Dr. Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, reported raising by far the most cash of any Republican, $20 million, in the three months that ended Sept. 30. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas raised $12 million, and Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard executive, raised almost $7 million. All of them either increased or held steady their average weekly cash intake over the previous quarter.
By contrast, the two leading Republicans favored most by the party elite reported substantial declines in their fundraising. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who raised $11.4 million in the first two weeks after his official campaign announcement in June, took in $13.4 million during the next three months, according to his campaign reports. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida raised only $6 million, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey raised $4.2 million. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian Republican, raised $2.5 million.
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During the same period, two Republicans with strong ties to the party’s donor elite — Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas — were forced out of the race for lack of cash. Their departures were a reminder that campaigns must have their own money, because they cannot rely on super PACs for expenses such as travel budgets, salaries and field staff in early-primary states.
Cruz and Carson lead the Republican field in cash on hand, with $13.5 million for Cruz and $11.5 million for Carson, according to information released by their campaigns. Rubio and Bush trail slightly, with $11 million and $10.3 million cash on hand.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who secured commitments from many of the party’s biggest donors before she announced her candidacy, barely outraised Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist, bringing in half as much money a week as she had in the first months after she entered the race.
“The narrative earlier this year about how money matters is being flushed,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Six out of 10 primary voters are supporting outsider candidates. A socialist raised $25 million in the same period a libertarian raised $2.5 million — a 10-to-1 surprise fundraising advantage.”
The steady fundraising of outsider candidates, who have tapped into a network of smaller donors, suggests a financial paradigm shift in both parties, particularly on the right, where candidates most beloved by the Republican Party’s socially conservative and evangelical base have long struggled to muster the financial resources to sustain a long-term campaign for the nomination.
“I think we are in an unprecedented moment in the Republican Party,” said Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative grass-roots organization. “The conservative wing is ascendant and has figured out how to compete — how to raise the money and build the infrastructure. And I think the establishment has run out of a little steam.”
The shift also reflects insurgent candidates’ successful exploitation of online and small-donor fundraising during a period when the dominance of Donald Trump, the supposedly self-funding real estate developer, has sown doubt and uncertainty among the Republican Party’s donor class.
Although Trump, the Republican front-runner, has eschewed traditional fundraising, he collected $3.9 million from July 1 to the end of September, thanks to a flurry of low-dollar contributions. Just $100,779 of Trump’s contributions came from his own pocket, a drastic shift from how he had been paying for his campaign in its early months.
He often boasts he’s self-funding his campaign and brags about turning down multimillion-dollar contributions. But he has attracted contributions from across the country ranging from several dollars to several thousand.
Clinton and Bush have kept up a grueling schedule of fundraisers, with Bush’s campaign holding at least 58 events over 90 days that ended in September. Cruz’s campaign said 6,000 of his small contributors had pledged to make recurring donations every month — providing enough cash flow, with no fundraising appearances necessary — to cover Cruz’s expenses in the first four primary states, as well as in others where the campaign has set up operations.
“There is tremendous power among these donors,” said John Pudner, a former campaign manager to Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia — the conservative who unseated Eric Cantor, then the No. 2 Republican in the House, in 2014 — who now heads a conservative group that looks to empower small donors. “I think they’re realizing that they can be a counterbalance, particularly social conservatives.”
The reliance on small donors does not always come without a cost. Carson has relied heavily on expensive direct-mail and telemarketing consultants to raise money, spending prohibitive sums in the first months of his campaign. But Rubio and Bush both spent at an even higher rate than Carson — $4 of every $5 each man raised — in the three months that ended Sept. 30.