Bernie Sanders is winning the money primary for 2020 (so far)

Democratic U.S. 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds an  evening public rally along the waterfront in downtown San Diego, California, U.S., March 22, 2019.  REUTERS/Mike Blake - RC18B3B8CB20

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced that his first quarter fundraising totaled more than $18 million for his presidential campaign. This is an impressive accomplishment and it puts him at the head of a very large group of contenders. Next in line is Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who says she raised $12 million in the first quarter. The only other candidates to announce what the FEC will make formal in mid-April is former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who raised $9.4 million, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with an unexpected haul of $7 million in the first quarter. So far, the other candidates are silent–an indication that they may have less than stellar totals to show.

So what are we to make of the first quarter reports? It seems like they will clearly shuffle the deck a bit–putting Sanders and Harris in a bracket of their own. O’Rourke’s $9.4 million came during the first 18 days of his 2020 campaign—including an impressive $6.1 million within 24 hours of entering the race. This total puts O’Rourke at third in the money race so far, a respectable result given his relatively brief time in the race and setting him in first place in terms of dollars raised per day. While Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have kept quiet on their first-quarter fundraising so far, each now face a high bar, and it could be difficult to avoid disappointment. And then there’s Mayor Pete, who clearly over-performed expectations. He will now have to keep it up.

Welcome to the American presidential primary system, where expectations matter more than actual performance in a cascade of events that begins this month and that will change with every fundraising quarter, every new poll and, eventually, every new primary or caucus. Fundraising has always been an important signal of how a candidate is doing, but this year the Democratic National Committee has added a new twist to the process: Candidates must have 65,000 contributors in order to get into the presidential debates–shifting the emphasis from money totals to supporter totals.

First-quarter totals, however, have not always been accurate predictors of what’s to come (unless the party has an incumbent president in the White House who is running for re-election.) In the first quarter of 2015, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and physician Ben Carson placed numbers one and two, respectively, in the money primary. They were quickly overtaken by Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), who raised astonishing amounts of money by the time the election year rolled around–$82 million—only to lose the nomination to Donald Trump. While Trump raised a mere fraction of that, he managed to dominate free media. That, as they used to say in the MasterCard ads, was “priceless.”

In the first quarter of 2011, the front-running candidate in the Republican money primary was a gay-rights activist named Fred Karger, and the second place candidate was Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, didn’t even make it to the primaries. But by the second quarter of 2011, Mitt Romney led the money primary and won the nomination. In the first quarter of 2007, Mitt Romney was the front-runner, and Rudi Giuliani took second place in the money primary. Giuliani was out of the race early and John McCain went on to win the nomination.

On the Democratic side, the winners of the early money primary, Hillary Clinton in 2015 and John Kerry in 2004, did win the nomination. In 2007, Clinton started out as the winner of the money primary, but by the second quarter of the year a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, surprised the political establishment by outraising her. This turned out to be an early indication of his strength and her weakness. They battled it out to the end with Obama winning the 2008 nomination. Back in 1991, the early winners were Rep. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Lenora Fulani, a fringe candidate who never won a delegate. Tsongas ended up winning the New Hampshire primary in 1992, but in the weird world of presidential politics, the second-place finisher, Bill Clinton—the scandal-ridden “come-back kid”—got the momentum. By March, Tsongas was out of the race and Clinton went on to win the nomination.

So, while the money primary is important, it is far from definitive. But it does shuffle the race–sometimes from one quarter to another–raising expectations of some candidates and lowering expectations from others. The money primary dampens efforts to paint Bernie Sanders as yesterday’s news. For now, he is the front-runner—at least until the next quarter.