WASHINGTON (AP) — Long before ballots are counted and reliable polls are conducted, one of the earliest ways to gauge the popularity of presidential candidates is with dollars.
Getting donors to commit their money is a key measure of sustainability, especially in the early stages of a White House campaign. Those who raise large amounts of money will have the resources to pay for ads, travel and events deep into the primary. Those who struggle, or run out of money, often give up.
Faced with such high stakes, candidates often have an incentive to essentially inflate their numbers to appear more competitive than they might be in reality. That’s especially true in the early stages of the 2024 Republican presidential primary, where candidates are looking to prove they can raise enough money to pose a threat to Donald Trump, a former president who has a reputation as a prolific fundraiser and is eager to maintain his status as the GOP’s dominant figure.
At such an early stage, “this is just one quantifiable area where people can compare themselves to the rest of the field,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican political strategist. “It’s a popularity contest in a different way.”
An example of this is Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and former ambassador to the United Nations, who in February became the first major Republican challenger to Trump. She avoided disclosing how much her campaign raised in the early days, eschewing what is typically a candidate’s early bragging rights. Notably, her campaign refused to detail her accounts even as her fundraising appeals capitalized on sexist and ageist remarks CNN host Don Lemon made about Haley, seeking to turn outrage into sympathetic dollars.
But last week, as the deadline for filing the first quarterly fundraising reports approached, Haley’s campaign issued a press release touting $11 million in fundraising — an impressive number for any candidate in a race dominated by Trump.
“In just six weeks, Nikki Haley’s strong fundraising and active retail campaigns in early voting states make her a force to be reckoned with,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney said in a statement.
But when her fundraising reports were released Saturday night, some of those claims fell apart as it became clear Haley, who began her career as an accountant, and her campaign used a series of accounting gimmicks to artificially boost her fundraising. In reality, she raised only $8.3 million, significantly less than her campaign claimed.
Haley’s campaign runs three separate political committees, all of which raise money. To arrive at the $11 million figure, they double-counted the money as it was moved from one node of the operation to another—effectively treating money the campaign had already raised as new funds after being moved from one branch of its campaign to the next.
There’s nothing illegal about that approach, and Haley’s campaign says it stands by the practice.
Fundraising revelations suggest she’s not the only one using such a ploy. Marco Rubio used a similar strategy during his 2016 presidential bid, as did President Joe Biden during the 2020 campaign. Trump did, too, just last year when he took credit for raising $9.5 million during the last quarter of 2022, even though he raised a few million less.
“I’m a little surprised that this whole thing is getting the attention it is,” said Kevin McLaughlin, a veteran Republican strategist. “Everybody does this.”
Although not officially in the running, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott launched his presidential exploratory committee last week, with an impressive $22 million in the bank. If Scott goes ahead and formally joins the race, he will enter with the largest campaign account balance of any candidate in history.
Of course, that sum is not representative of the sudden surge in financial support for Scott. The two-term senator hasn’t faced a competitive race in years. Meanwhile, he benefited from his position in the Senate, which gave him access to a national pool of donors and allowed him to build a huge war chest.
It’s similar to the approach used by Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the 2020 Democratic primary. The Massachusetts progressive continued her relentless fundraising and wooing of big donors during her 2018 Senate re-election campaign. Then, months later, she reversed course and called on all her rivals to ditch the glitzy, high-dollar fundraising events that she suggested were inappropriate.
Many of its rivals have struggled to raise money. Warren, however, made her bid for the White House with $10.4 million in cash left over in the Senate.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is not yet a candidate in the Republican presidential primary, has a whopping $85.8 million left over from his 2022 gubernatorial re-election campaign. But under federal law, he is barred from transferring that money from his state campaign to the presidential campaign.
However, under a gray area of campaign finance law, the money could be transferred to a super PAC supporting his candidacy, which can spend unlimited amounts of money as long as it does not coordinate its activity with DeSantis’ presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, the governor’s allies are raising money for the anticipated ride.
Never Back Down, a political committee recently formed to urge him to run, says it has already raised $30 million. One wing of the group runs ads defending DeSantis and attacking Trump, while another arm of the operation raises money that can be funneled directly to DeSantis, should he enter the race.
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, reported raising more than $18.8 million between his main campaign account and a joint fundraising account in the first three months of the year. In addition to the money he raised in that first quarter, his campaign said $15.4 million came in starting in April after he was accused in New York of paying kickbacks to a porn actress who alleged an affair.
Trump has denied the allegations and derided the criminal charges as politically motivated.
Donovan said the former president’s fundraising has been fueled by small-dollar donors and his command of the news cycle, making it difficult for any other candidate to recreate on the same scale.
He said candidates can use strong fundraising numbers to attract even more contributions by attracting wealthy GOP donors seeking an alternative to Trump.
“There is a strong signal emerging at this stage of the process,” Donovan said. “Major donors and major donors are looking around and taking into account what everyone else is doing.”
“People want to support the winner,” he said.
The price was announced from New York.