Sunday marks the end of the first fundraising quarter of the 2020 campaign, offering an early picture of the financial strength of the Democrats jockeying to face President Donald Trump in the general election.
There’s pressure on top-tier contenders to post big numbers. But the lesser-known candidates in the crowded Democratic field face an added challenge: meeting the new criteria the Democratic National Committee has established for the first two debates.
To get on the debate stage this summer, candidates must either earn at least 1% support in several polls or receive campaign contributions from 65,000 individuals.
The looming deadline has triggered a frenzied dash for money. Candidates are hitting the fundraising circuit this weekend and sending out dire pleas for donations.
“Unless we hit our fundraising goals, Elizabeth’s voice is at risk of being drowned out,” warned one email from the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign said it saw a fundraising surge following his recent town hall appearance on CNN. “Will you chip in right now to keep that momentum going?” his team implored via email.
The presidential candidates don’t have to file reports detailing their fundraising and spending with the Federal Election Commission until April 15. But the candidates who have something to brag about will start releasing selected numbers well ahead of the reporting deadline.
Here’s what to look for as the numbers roll in:
The most money
All signs point to a big haul for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who collected nearly $6 million on his first day as a candidate, a number that his aides say grew to $10 million in less than a week.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who raised a record $80 million in his unsuccessful Senate campaign last year, also posted big Day One numbers. He said he collected a whopping $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his presidential bid.
But O’Rourke’s campaign launch March 14 came nearly a month after Sanders’ announcement, and O’Rourke’s aides warned supporters that the Texan “had a lot less time to fundraise” than his rivals have. “Can you contribute $3 before time runs out?” his team asked in the fundraising plea.
The first-day hauls of Sanders and O’Rourke far surpassed any other candidates who have publicly shared their totals. The closest: California Sen. Kamala Harris, who raised $1.5 million in early donations.
In recent days, Harris and her team appeared to lower expectations, warning that some of her rivals “will have outraised us” when the first reports are made public. “That’s okay,” she added, “because I can guarantee we won’t be outworked.”
Big totals, of course, are no guarantee of success at the ballot box.
Other candidates – including Democrats John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Republican Ron Paul – had multimillion-dollar single fundraising days in their presidential contests – and still lost, notes Michael Malbin, who runs the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
The totals already announced by Sanders and O’Rourke “are not insignificant, but they are not determinative,” he said.
And other potential candidates with deep ties to the Democratic Party’s biggest fundraisers, including former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, had not yet entered the race as the first-quarter deadline approached.
“You need money” to run for the presidency, “but there’s time to get it if you don’t have it,” Malbin said.
Cash on hand
The money candidates still have in the bank at the end of the first quarter will offer a snapshot of their staying power in the long primary fight. The survivor of the Democratic nomination battle likely will face a well-financed opponent in Trump, who never stopped campaigning after winning the White House in 2016 and started the year with more than $19 million remaining in his campaign account.
Some Democratic contenders entered the 2020 campaign with a built-in advantage: big sums left over from their Senate races that they could transfer to their presidential campaigns. Warren led the way with more than $11 million, followed by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at $10.3 million.
But as they hire talent, advertise and crisscross the early voting states, those reserves can dwindle quickly.
Warren, who decided to step up her campaign’s battle against big money by swearing off attending fundraising events, announced her candidacy early – on December 31.
Warren – who, like Sanders, is a prominent member of the party’s progressive flank and has a track record of attracting small-dollar donors to her campaigns – has not released her first-day fundraising totals.
But a CNN tally of donations to Warren processed through ActBlue show she raised slightly less $300,000 that day through the online fundraising platform.
Sanders, who raised more than $230 million in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2016, amassed an enormous list of supporters in his previous campaign. In a recent fundraising email, he says he has received more than 737,000 online contributions and hopes to hit 1 million.
Candidates also are touting the donor numbers. O’Rourke claimed 128,000 separate donors on the first day of his campaign, while Harris’ campaign said 38,000 donors contributed to her Day One haul.
“A large number of donors shows a breadth and depth of support, but it also allows a candidate to return to those donors in the future,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political newsletter.
Donors who contribute small amounts online – particularly through automatic, recurring donations – are a goldmine for campaigns because they can be tapped repeatedly for contribution before they hit the $2,800 limit on what an individual can donate to a candidate for a primary election.
The ability to attract individual donors also has become a crucial litmus test for little-known candidates who want to join the Democratic Party’s first two debates.
In addition to a polling requirement, contenders can get on the debate state by receiving contributions from at least 65,000 unique donors. To show widespread support, candidates also must demonstrate they have financial support from a minimum of 200 donor per state in at least 20 states.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Peter Buttigieg announced earlier this month that he had reached the 65,000-donor threshold after an attention-getting CNN town hall help provide a fresh wave of donors to his campaign.
John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who has poured millions of his own money into his presidential campaign, has landed on an unorthodox strategy to hit the target.
As part of what he calls the “Delaney Debate Challenge,” he’s offering to double donors’ money. Here’s how it works: If someone donates $1 to his campaign, he’ll donate $2 to a charity the donor chooses from a list of 11 nonprofit groups Delaney selected.
Delaney spokesman Michael Starr Hopkins did not provide details Friday on how many donors Delaney has attracted with his new approach but said: “We’ve seen an increase in our fundraising and national exposure.”
“We look forward to participating in the debates in June,” he added.
CNN’s David Wright and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.