Washington (CNN)Nearly every presidential candidate released on Wednesday released detailed financial portraits of how their campaign fares entering the summer. The sums are important, but six months before any votes are cast, the tea leaves tell us more.
Top 4 money takeaways for 2016
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The sums raised by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, $15 million, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, $8.5 million, aren't jaw-dropping by themselves. Yet what should make their campaigns more intimidating to their party's frontrunners is the percentage of those funds that came from small-dollar donors.
Sanders, the Democratic socialist posing a surprising challenge to Hillary Clinton, raised 77% of his money in chunks less than $200, what the Federal Elections Commission considers a low-dollar contribution. And Carson brought in 67% of his money in similarly sized donations.
Here's what that means: Sanders and Carson can return to their large donor lists for another $150 again and again and again. Their donors are not "maxed out" -- they haven't yet hit the $2,700 contribution limit the FEC sets for each individual each cycle. So though Sanders and Carson sit well behind the Democratic and Republican frontrunners for the presidential nomination, they have access to potentially gallons of water to draw upon waiting in the well.
One of the dynastic candidates' strengths entering 2016 is their families' ties to the fundraising networks. And Wednesday's data didn't dispute that: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised $11.4 million thanks in part to the path-breaking bundling network invented by his brother, and Clinton's $45 million from the Democratic establishment gives her a tremendous advantage.
But very little of their money comes from the grassroots donors that Sanders and Carson have captured. A measly 3% of Bush's money came in small amounts. That's in part because he only had two weeks as an official candidate to raise donations for his official campaign, but it marks a stark contrast with Carson.
Clinton fared better: 17% of her cash came in less-than-$200 increments. But read another way, it presents a problem for the Democrats' leading candidate: more than 60% of Clinton's contributions came from donors who aren't allowed to give again in the primary race.
What unites Clinton and Carson is their high level of spending in the opening weeks of their campaigns. Both campaigns boast a relatively high "burn rate" -- the proportion of the money raised that is spent.
That rate is looked to by operatives and rivals to gauge how lean a campaign is, especially in the early stages when few candidates have begun to spend on television ads. Carson's burn rate of 64% is driven by high staff salaries -- and that will likely be a drag on his campaign for the duration. Clinton's burn rate was 40%, according to her FEC filing.
Other campaigns burned by their rate: Donald Trump, who ditched 74% of his money in the first quarter; Rick Santorum, who spent 62% of his; and Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, the only other candidates with a rate above 50% this quarter.
If a campaign wants to go deep into primary season -- especially if it doesn't have a well-funded super PAC that it can use as a lifeline -- a high burn rate can spell trouble.
The reports out Wednesday begin to outline the contours of the 2016 fundraising battle. The super PAC filings out in two weeks will tell us the names waging it.
The campaign committees are expected to raise far less than the super PACs independently backing their bids. These groups, which are allowed to accept contributions of unlimited size as long as they don't coordinate spending with the campaign, will show sums far exceeding the differences between individual campaigns.
The other signal to be followed in those reports: Big-ticket Democratic donors have largely made their choice -- Clinton. But who are the Republicans' biggest moneymen lining up behind? There are some Republican donors who will give millions of dollars this cycle. Even if they're only ponying up a few hundred thousand in June, their next contribution could be 10 times as large when the Iowa caucuses beckon.