At the end of every quarter (March 31, June 30, September 30, and December 31), political campaigns are required to file financial statements with the FEC. They have until the 15th of the following month to get their paperwork in for the previous quarter. This FEC data is made publicly available on their website, FEC.gov, but it’s not exactly the easiest to understand or compare.
Thanks to the help of several data-hungry friends of mine, most specifically Tanya, I’ve had access to a database compiling some of this data into an easier to digest format… and thanks to a question from a friend, I’ve done my favorite thing.
I’ve made some charts.
To begin with, I want to take a look at the scope of this study. The current crop of Democratic candidates have been running their campaigns for everything from 3 months to 2 years.
In the above chart, the first, blue number is how many days they waited after July 1, 2017 to announce their interest in running for President. The second number is how many days their exploratory committee operated for (0 means they did not have an exploratory committee), and the final number is how many days their official campaign ran. The above chart runs through November 2, 2019.
John Delaney began running for President in the 2020 election on July 27, 2017. Andrew Yang announced on November 6, 2017. All other candidates announced in 2019. As such, I am only going to look at the FEC filings for 2019. Delaney came into 2019 with $6,157,553 in his campaign, while Yang brought in $563,783. I am not taking Ojeda into consideration for this analysis because he dropped out so early in 2019. I am also not taking Joe Sestak into consideration… because I forgot to pull his FEC data until I had already done most of this write-up. I’m so sorry, Joe. I’ll include you in my next analysis.
Combining the FEC filings from Q1, Q2, and Q3 of 2019, this is the breakdown of all the candidates.
While the FEC filings go into a lot more detail, I’ve broken down campaign contributions into 5 major categories.
- Individual — The biggest category and the most important, individual contributions are made by individuals. These are not PAC contributions or corporate contributions. These are made by individual people who can max out their donation at $2,800 per candidate in an election. Campaigns are required to itemize the information of anyone who has contributed more than $200 to their campaign. The more-than-$200 donors are the ones labeled “large donors.” A large donor does NOT have to max out their contribution.
- Other Committees/Candidates — If another political committee or campaign makes a donation to the campaign, or if a candidate makes a donation to their own campaign, it falls into this category. This is where PAC money would go, as a donation from another political committee. This is also where a candidate’s self-funding would go. There is no limit to how much money a candidate can donate to their own campaign. There are limits on how much money PACs and other campaigns can contribute, but these vary based on committee type.
- Transfers — Candidates are allowed to transfer unlimited funds from one of their own political campaign to another on the same level. A federal campaign can transfer to a federal campaign, a local campaign can not transfer to a federal campaign. Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen can transfer money from their previous elections into their Presidential election. Governors, mayors, Cabinet secretaries, and non-political-figures cannot. It is worth noting that while Joe Biden held a federal office, the campaign was Obama’s campaign, and therefore cannot transfer unlimited funds to Biden’s campaign. Jay Inslee, after dropping out from a Federal election to run for a State election, cannot transfer his Presidential campaign funds to his Governor run.
- Loans — As it says on the tin, loans are loans the campaign has taken out. Candidates can loan their campaign unlimited funds, but the expectation is that the campaign will pay the candidate back that money. This is one way to get a campaign off the ground by providing some seed money, with the expectation that the campaign will refund all of that seed money once it is self-sustaining.
- Other — Other sources of income, such as interest or dividends. It is worth noting that merch sales are counted as individual income, as it goes to a person.
So, as you can see, in 2019 there was a lot of green (individual) contributions and some purple (transfers from previous campaigns/committees), with John Delaney loaning his campaign some serious money and Tom Steyer just paying his campaign some serious money. The order of the above chart may seem confusing, however.
At least, until you change the way the data is displayed.
Both above charts have been ordered from highest percentage of income from individual contributions to lowest percentage of income from individual contributions.
Yes, Wayne Messam is 100% individually funded.
Joe Biden is sitting at 99.79% individual contributions. I would say that Biden and everyone above him on the chart can claim to be 100% grassroots funded, if by grassroots funded, you mean individual Americans opting to give their personal money to a Presidential campaign. And yes, some of those Americans may be super wealthy 1%ers maxing out their contributions… but they are still individual Americans limited to just $2,800, and they are not PACs or corporations.
The individual donations is not what people are interested in, not really. They want to know the dirty secrets of the candidates’ funding. Where are they getting their money that doesn’t come from individuals?
Stripping out the individual contributions gives us a better opportunity to see what is going on. I’ve reordered the chart so the candidate who received the lowest cash value of non-individual contributions is at the top and the one who received the most is at the bottom. As you can see now, Marianne Williamson is basically 100% funded by interest and dividends once you take out her individual contributions, while Eric Swalwell, Tulsi Gabbard, and Amy Klobuchar are basically 100% funded from transfers from their other campaigns without individual contributions. John Delaney is pretty much entirely loans (to himself), and Tom Steyer joins Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, and Tim Ryan for being largely self-funded or other-committee-funded once individual contributions are removed.
It’s worth calling out John Delaney’s loans for another reason. When you look at his receipts, his loans are usually taken out two days before the end of the quarter…and they’re usually repaid almost completely in full about four days after the new quarter begins. In other words: Delaney is padding his numbers to make them look good for the reporting. His campaign only actually has multi-millions for the week around the end of each quarter.
If we go back to the total amount chart, without individual donations, you can see the huge gulf between Wayne Messam’s $0 from non-individuals and Bernie Sanders’ nearly $13 million, and this is with John Delaney’s $19.9 million and Tom Steyer’s $47.5 million removed from the scale.
Now, I can already hear people complaining that this is unfair because Bernie Sanders was only raising money from individuals in previous campaigns and so just because he transferred a lot doesn’t mean that he’s not fully grassroots funded. To that, I say No.
The scope of this analysis is on the 2020 elections only, and 2019 fundraising only. Any money transferred by a candidate came from outside that scope. It is much easier to raise $1 million when you already have $1 million, and the bulk of money transferred came at the start of the campaigns of these candidates. It is much more impressive for a candidate to go from $0–$1 million than it is for a candidate to go from $10 million-$11 million.
Secondly, while I didn’t do thorough deep dives chasing down all the donors of all the candidates, I did look into some of these big transfers, and there is definitely PAC money rolled up into most of them. Yes, even Bernie Sanders. And no, it’s not dreadfully scary PAC money (I seem to recall one PAC for knee surgeons?) but it’s still not individual contributions.
Of course, I never know when to draw a line. After all of these previous charts, I had to go a little deeper. Let’s look at the actual numbers behind the candidates who are still actively running.
For the sheer amount of individual dollars brought in, the candidates are ranked as follows:
- Bernie Sanders: $61,456,335
- Pete Buttigieg: $51,462,291
- Elizabeth Warren: $49,788,317
- Joe Biden: $37,634,586
- Kamala Harris: $35,505,962
- Cory Booker: $15,513,702
- Andrew Yang: $14,521,832
- Amy Klobuchar: $13,908,190
- Julian Castro: $7,381,790
- Tulsi Gabbard: $6,543,517
- Marianne Williamson: $6,120,438
- Michael Bennet: $4,910,561
- Steve Bullock: $4,359,770
- Tom Steyer: $2,047,433
- John Delaney: $1,151,566
- Wayne Messam: $93,818
With 100% of his $93,818 campaign funds raised by individual contributions, Wayne Messam is still the candidate with the most grassroots support. Yes, Messam is still running. Just because he only pulled in $5 in Q3 doesn’t mean he’s done. Until he drops out, I still count him. For all the candidates, their percentage of individual contributions total:
- Wayne Messam: 100% of $93,818
- Marianne Williamson: 99.96% of $6,122,806
- Steve Bullock: 99.95% of $4,361,870
- Andrew Yang: 99.93% of $14,532,590
- Pete Buttigieg: 99.90% of $51,511,333
- Julian Castro: 99.82% of $7,395,143
- Joe Biden: 99.79% of $37,714,437
- Kamala Harris: 96.35% of $36,850,343
- Michael Bennet: 87.41% of $5,618,168
- Cory Booker: 84.31% of $18,399,964
- Bernie Sanders: 82.73% of $74,283,539
- Elizabeth Warren: 82.61% of $60,270,109
- Amy Klobuchar: 79.53% of $17,488,840
- Tulsi Gabbard: 72.53% of $9,044,611
- John Delaney: 5.47% of $21,034,072
- Tom Steyer: 4.12% of $49,645,130
Removing the individual contributions from the percentages, the numbers are a little easier to see. From least to most cash value of non-individual contributions, the campaigns have the following percentages of their total contributions:
- Wayne Messam: 0% non-individual
- Steve Bullock: 0.05% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates.
- Marianne Williamson: 0.04% of her contributions are from Other (interest/dividends).
- Andrew Yang: 0.07% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates. He also has $413 from Other (interest/dividends), but this comes out to 0.00% of his total contributions.
- Julian Castro: 0.18% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates.
- Pete Buttigieg: 0.02% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, while 0.08% of his contributions are from Other (interest/dividends).
- Joe Biden: 0.19% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, while 0.02% are from Other (interest/dividends)
- Michael Bennet: 0.14% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, while 12.46% of his contributions are from Transfers.
- Kamala Harris: 0.18% of her contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, 3.26% are from Transfers, and 0.21% are from Other (interest/dividends).
- Tulsi Gabbard: 0.01% of her contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, 27.64% are from Transfers, and $18 (0.00%) are from Other (interest/dividends).
- Cory Booker: 0.82% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, 14.81% are from Transfers, and 0.06% are from Other (interest/dividends).
- Amy Klobuchar: 0.03% of her contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates and 20.44% are from Transfers.
- Elizabeth Warren: 0.01% of her contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, 17.28% are from transfers, and 0.10% are from Other (interest/dividends).
- Bernie Sanders: 0.01% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, 17.10% are from Transfers, and 0.16% are from Other (interest/dividends).
- John Delaney: 0.15% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates, and 94.37% are from Loans.
- Tom Steyer: 95.88% of his contributions are from Other Committees/Candidates.
The total breakdown of non-individual contributions are as follows:
- Wayne Messam: $0
- Steve Bullock: $2,100 from Other Committees/Candidates.
- Marianne Williamson: $2,368 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Andrew Yang: $10,758 total, $10,346 from Other Committees/Candidates, 413 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Julian Castro: $13,363 from Other Committees/Candidates
- Pete Buttigieg: $49,042 total, $8,120 from Other Committees/Candidates, $40,922 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Joe Biden: $79,851 total, $70,915 from Other Committees/Candidates, $8,936 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Michael Bennet: $707,607 total, $7,607 from Other Committees/Candidates, $700,000 from Transfers
- Kamala Harris: $1,344,382 total, $64,988 from Other Committees/Candidates, $1,202,494 from Transfers, $76,900 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Tulsi Gabbard: $2,501,093 total, $1,075 from Other Committees/Candidates, $2,500,000 from Transfers, $18 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Cory Booker: $2,886,262 total, $150,900 from Other Committees/Candidates, $2,725,000 from Transfers, $10,362 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Amy Klobuchar: $3,580,650 total, $5,375 from Other Committees/Candidates and $3,575,275 from Transfers
- Elizabeth Warren: $10,481,792 total, $7,181 from Other Committees/Candidates, $10,415,000 from Transfers, and $59,611 from Other (interest/dividends)
- Bernie Sanders: $12,827,203 total, $5,029 from Other Committees/Candidates, $12,701,500 from Transfers, and $120,674 from Other (interest/dividends)
- John Delaney: $19,882,507 total, $32,507 from Other Committees/Candidates and $19,850,000 from Loans
- Tom Steyer: $47,597,698 from Other Committees/Candidates
So, there you have it. The dirty dirty secrets of where the campaigns get their money. As you can see, the vast majority of the candidates get the vast majority of their funds from individual contributions. There is a very low percentage of money in the category for PACs. The differences between the candidates’ sources of funding are in the mere thousands (with two exceptions), and when they’re dealing with millions, that is practically a rounding error. I’d go so far as to say that anyone claiming a candidate is being bought by Big Corporations can only be talking about Tom Steyer or John Delaney.
I’ll leave you with one interesting note. In Q3, Pete Buttigieg reported a $65 contribution from a political party. No one else did. This contribution was the value of a flag sent from the Republican party: to protest perceived disrespect to the flag (from the Mexican flag being raised at an ICE detention facility, I believe), they sent an American flag to most of the major players in the Democratic primary. Seth Moulton, who had served as a Marine, called the Republicans out for not folding the flag properly. It looks like Pete Buttigieg decided it was a campaign contribution.