A candidate with significant money in the bank can withstand an early loss, said Taryn Rosenkranz, founder of the Democratic online fundraising firm New Blue Interactive. But Democratic donors “are going to rally behind the person who they think is going to win. That first caucus out of the gate is going to be the one who people are surging for,” Rosenkranz said.
The significance of the campaign cash gap only grows as the calendar inches toward Super Tuesday, the 14-state mega-primary on March 3 that includes California and Texas, where it takes millions of dollars to buy even a week worth of television advertising, not to mention hire the staff to run organized operations in those sprawling, delegate-rich states. Sanders has already been using his resource advantage to prepare: This week, he reserved $2.5 million in TV airtime in California and Texas.
“The Super Tuesday states are terribly expensive. You need to be able to participate in major media markets to get your share of the votes — you can’t just rely on momentum alone,” said Jeff Roe, a Republican consultant who managed Sen. Ted Cruz’ 2016 bid for president. “You need to have that war chest.”
The Sanders campaign’s $50 million spending spree in the last quarter of 2019 included more than $8 million in spending on more than 900 staffers and $1 million on rent and utilities for an operation with a big physical footprint, as well as $1.3 million dropped on private flights to travel to and from events. The campaign spent $20 million on TV and digital ads.
As it prepared for Iowa, the campaign stocked up with $1.9 million worth of campaign merchandise: Bernie-branded bumper stickers, buttons and t-shirts according to disclosures.
After rolling into January with more cash than his main Iowa rivals, Sanders used it in the run-up to the caucuses, a likely significant factor in his polling rise. He spent $8 million on television, digital and radio ads in January, according to the tracking firm Advertising Analytics, while Buttigieg (who started 2020 with $14.5 million cash on hand) spent $6.5 million on ads and Sen. Warren ($13.7 million cash on hand) spent $5.4 million on ads.
Meanwhile, Biden spent just $2.4 million on advertising in January, according to Advertising Analytics, though he also had the assistance of an outside super PAC that spent $5 million aiding him in Iowa.
Biden’s campaign paid just under 490 employees during that time — hundreds less than the more than 900-member paid army that Sanders built. Warren, who has placed a particular emphasis on building a large field organization to turn out voters, has an even bigger staff than Sanders, paying 1,100 people during the last three months of 2019. Warren’s campaign spent a total of $33.4 million during that time.
Going forward, Sanders is more prepared than his rivals to keep spreading his message on the airwaves: He’s reserved another $5 million in television and radio ads in February, while Warren has bought the next-largest amount, $3.4 million. Buttigieg — who is banking on a victory in Iowa to preserve his status as a candidate to watch in the race — so far has $465,000 in ads reserved next month as the campaign prepares to move on to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Sanders’ cash position is imposing compared to the other traditional candidates, but he has less available than the two billionaires competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg alone dropped $188 million during the first five weeks of his bid alone, and his campaign dwarfs his rivals in scale: He spent $140 million on television and digital advertising and $7.2 million so far on polling.
“Michael Bloomberg is spending an unlimited amount of money to build an organization, and spending it in places that people have never paid attention to before. How that shapes the next round of primaries and caucuses in states like Nevada, I don’t think anybody knows,” said Henry Muñoz, former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.
For candidates like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who started the year with $5 million in the bank and is employing just under 200 people, Iowa and New Hampshire are likely the campaign’s last chances to surge in the polls.
Klobuchar is targeting Iowa, after which it will take a significantly larger campaign budget to keep competing in the race. Other candidates including Andrew Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Michael Bennet will similarly face crunch in the coming weeks: All of them had less than $5 million banked heading into 2020.
“Bernie right now has more national momentum and more money,” said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 bid. “For someone like Amy Klobuchar — and Kamala [Harris] did this too — the only strategy they have left is to throw it all into Iowa, and it’s make or break time.”