Reading the FEC Tea Leaves

There's a lot of money already chasing the 2020 presidential election.

When I saw the MSNBC headline “Wall Street and finance execs spread their donations across the 2020 Democratic field in the first quarter,” I was expecting a cynical tale of an industry hedging its bets to ensure that the next President feels beholden. Instead, it was just some anecdotes derived from the latest FEC reports.

Wall Street and finance executives placed their early 2020 bets on a variety of Democratic presidential candidates, from Pete Buttigieg to Kamala Harris, even as the contenders try to distance themselves from big-money donors.

The first-quarter fundraising totals are the latest indication that high-profile Democratic financiers are waiting for the field to thin out before they open their funding networks and checkbooks to potential challengers to President Donald Trump next year.

Some donors have also been eagerly waiting for former Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race before they open their extensive money networks to other candidates, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Meanwhile, as Democrats vie for limited dollars in a crowded group, Trump’s campaign raised a whopping $30 million in the first quarter and has more than $40 million in cash on hand, giving the president a clear edge even as he suffers from low approval ratings.

The early fundraising totals, which were disclosed on Monday in Federal Election Commission filings, show that some players in the financial industry are interested in backing certain candidates early on, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who led the Democratic fundraising field with an $18 million haul in the first quarter, did not appear to get donations from finance executives. Eighty-four percent of the take came from donations of $200 or less.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another longtime critic of Wall Street and big businesses, received few donations from people in the financial industry. Warren raised $6 million, with 70% coming from small donations.

There is no systematic evidence for any of this. It’s later followed by listings of a handful of specific, not-particularly-well-known, individuals in the finance industry who wrote checks to specific candidates. And none of them seem to have donated to multiple candidates.

The overall data is much more interesting than the financial sector cut-out:

Obviously, Sanders is doing quite well, befitting the 2016 runner-up who came into this cycle as a frontrunner. Harris is doing almost as well—much better than her second-tier standing in the polls would lead us to expect. And O’Rourke and Buttigieg are both raising money at a pace to suggest that the frenzy of media coverage is warranted (granted, there’s a chicken-egg situation).

Two other things strike me as interesting.

First, John Delaney—who I needed to Google—is spending a lot of money and somehow still has more left on hand than just about anyone in the field. I don’t know where or how he’s spending that $7.5 million but it ain’t working.

Second, running for President brings out the money. Even candidates with zero shot at winning the Democratic nomination in 2020 are raking in the cash. Marianne Williamson, who I also had to Google, has somehow raised half a million. Who are these people with nothing else to do with their money? And why aren’t they donating it to either a candidate who might actually be president or to, say, cancer research? Or, hell, Project Angel Food?

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I gave Klobuchar a hundred or so until the news of her punching down surfaced. I think it’s $1200 to Buttigieg so far. The reason I give to political candidates is because I’m hoping we will be able to save American democracy, our system of laws and Pax Americana from the corrupt GOP, the idiot 46% and the senile clown in the White House. Project Angel Food isn’t going to do any of that.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    To answer @JamesJoyner’s question, intending no slight to @MichaelReynolds – this is the sort of problem that inequality at the level we have in the US brings.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Indeed. I checked Open Secrets the other day and it seems that only a tiny fraction of people give anything at all, and of that tiny fraction an even smaller fraction give more than $200. Who are those donors? People who’ve already paid their bills and already covered their vices and still have cash left over.

    I first started donating – and this will surprise you – when I went from working class to 1%. I remember picking up the phone in Chicago and realizing it was David Bonior calling. At the time he was Dem whip IIRC. Bonior just wanted some input from me on issues. Who gets those calls? Not working people, that’s who. Sadly Mr. Bonior had to get on with his day without my sage advice, I was on my way to the grocery store.

    Similar with Adam Schiff in his first run. He was in CA, I was in Chicago, and he was calling me. I told him I just wanted him to be a good Congressman. He seemed nonplussed.

    It is shocking how little it costs to get a Congressman to call you up and ask your ‘advice.’ If I started bundling I could get a Congressional handjob.

  4. Gustopher says:

    I’m impressed that Buttigieg has spent so little. His team is doing an amazing job getting him in front of cameras and raising his name recognition from nothing.

    Conventional wisdom would say that a 37 year old mayor of a small city has no business running for President. Have we ever had someone with this kind of sudden emerge-from-nowhere on the Democratic side?

    Howard Dean comes to mind as the closest, but he was a governor. A very generic governor that people in his state frequently forgot was governor. But a governor gaining traction is a pretty common path.

    There are more similar rise-from-nowhere candidates on the other side. Republicans seem to find an unqualified black guy for a month during the lead up to the primaries — Herman Cain and Ben Carson and I bet that nutty sheriff with the big hat and all the medals is gearing up for 2024.

    But Buttigieg isn’t obviously unsuited for the office, just a bit inexperienced.

  5. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    At the time he was Dem whip IIRC. Bonior just wanted some input from me on issues.

    This is the tactic I try to drill out of the head of anyone I’m training to raise funds, whether an underling or (back when this was part of my life) a candidate. It’s insulting. The people you are calling are hit up for money every day. And, for the most part, they are intelligent. Do you really think your ploy about ‘asking for advice’ isn’t transparently bullsh*t to them? And it’s insulting to you, the solicitor. If you are proud of the work you, your nonprofit, whatever is doing, you should be proud to ask like minded people to support it. If you aren’t proud of the work you are doing, quit–life is too short to do something you hate.

    If I started bundling I could get a Congressional handjob.

    This is, um, barelyan exaggeration. A Congressional Aide handsy though…

  6. Matt says:

    @Gustopher: Pete is just amazingly smart and articulate. He is also the only candidate that is willing to show up about anywhere for a talk with basically anyone with a show.

    I lived in Illinois near the border with Indiana most of my life so I’m quite familiar with that area and he’s done a damned fine job considering the difficulties.

    EDIT : I’ve been pushing Pete for a while now here so I’m quite glad to see him being noticed :). Just hoping I’m not reaching the point of becoming annoying with my fanboyism.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    If I started bundling I could get a Congressional handjob.

    What is politics today if not professional whoring (and oftentimes, not particularly professional)? Of course, that’s what happens when money is defined as “speech”…

  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Well, I’m a bit less surprised than perhaps you think. I have another friend who, ahem, made it big in Silicon Valley and turned to political giving and activism. He has mentioned having meetings with Rahm Emanuel while he was Chief of Staff to Obama.

    I’m capable of being more active in that area myself, but the idea of it – the idea of the sorts of conversations I’d have with people – even people that at a different level might be really interesting – makes my blood run cold.