The top tier of the Democratic presidential primary is now reshaped around five candidates. The latest fundraising numbers prove it.
Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren raised about $100 million in the last three months combined. Together, they share a large majority of the public support.
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They were already spending millions of dollars more than many lower-polling contenders have even raised. Now, in a powerful compounding effect for their campaigns, these top tier candidates are poised to plow that new money back into their field and digital operations — further reinforcing their fundraising and organizing advantages in the 23-candidate field.
It’s too early to be an inflection point, but late enough that the rest of the field needs to start worrying.
“The front-runners are pulling away, absent a blunder,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California. “It’s like any season as you get closer, some teams are headed to the World Series or the Super Bowl … The difference between winning and losing is pretty severe.”
The consolidation of Democratic money in the primary — and the now-flattened top tier — became evident this week, after Warren, the Massachusetts senator, announced Monday that she raised a $19.1 million in the second quarter. Buttigieg raised $25 million, Biden raised $21.5 million, Sanders raised $18 million and Harris raised $12 million.
That money is not just a benchmark. Buttigieg, while raising his staggering sum, began hiring dozens of organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire and plans to have 300 people on staff by Labor Day. Warren added more than 100 staffers in the past three months and already has more than 300 in total.
Harris in recent weeks has dramatically expanded her operation in the four early-nominating states, with more than 65 staffers in Iowa, 49 in South Carolina, 35 in Nevada and 30 in New Hampshire.
While lower-polling candidates are still struggling just to qualify for upcoming presidential debates, candidates with money can now return to their expanding donor lists for repeat contributions. By late summer, they are expected to begin reserving time for TV advertisements in select early primary states.
For every candidate outside of the top tier, “From this point forward, it gets harder for all of them,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist. “Because if you’re at the bottom of the pile and you’re punching up for donors, trying to move polling numbers or obtaining traction with a viral moment and you haven’t been able to do it so far, what makes somebody think they can do it when people are starting to consolidate around the top five?”
Democratic voters, Herman said, are “starting to rule people out. They’re not consolidating, but they’re narrowing it to five or six. They’re starting to figure out who they’re not for.”
The same five front-runners are pulling more than 80 percent of the Democratic electorate’s support nationally, according to the most recent Morning Consult poll. And while many voters have yet to settle on a single candidate, voters’ second choice candidates tend to draw from the same group of contenders.
In part, the focus on those candidates reflects not only name recognition, but an electorate yearning for a more manageable number of candidates to assess. In a finding reflective of other polls, a CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll last month found an overwhelming majority of caucus-goers felt the candidate field was too large. The media is starting to assist them by turning public attention increasingly to skirmishes among the top-performing candidates.
The school busing controversy between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris simmered for more than a week after the first primary debates last month. Warren’s rise has been significant in large part because of its implications for Sanders, a fellow progressive — and fellow top-tier contender.
When Rep. Eric Swalwell abandoned his long-shot campaign Monday — the first major candidate to end his campaign — he said one of the plainest challenges to his candidacy was “a lot of heavyweights in that field.”
“You have people who, you know, have had high name recognition,” he said. “Two of the candidates have run for president before that I stood on a stage with. We have a senator in California who’s running who is … quite talented and quite popular.”
Asked if he had any advice for Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic mega-donor who announced the following day that he is running, Swalwell joked, “It’s rough out there.”
Advisers to the front-running candidates caution that the primary remains volatile. So do major donors and unaffiliated strategists. Karen Hicks, a Democratic strategist in New Hampshire, said a financial crisis, an international incident or some other unplanned event could propel a candidate who rises to “meet the moment somehow in a way that sticks.”
The primary, she said, is “still super fluid.”
The newest entrant into the race, Steyer, could potentially make a mark with his immense wealth and expectations he will spend at least $100 million.
“When you have one guy who’s coming with $100 million, you can’t discount that,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who advised Cynthia Nixon in her primary campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year.
However, she said that for candidates who aren’t already gaining traction and who cannot afford to self-fund, “For those candidates who have dedicated their lives to public service, they’re SOL.”
Julián Castro is a telling example. The former Obama cabinet member and former mayor of San Antonio had a breakout debate performance last month challenging his fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke on the issue of immigration.
On Monday, he sent supporters an email celebrating that his campaign now has 130,000 different donors, meeting a difficult threshold for the September presidential debates.
But Castro is still polling at 1 percent, according to Morning Consult. O’Rourke stands at 3 percent.
“I think there is still time for the second tier candidate to resonate, but they need to get with it, because time is slipping away,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an influential state lawmaker in early-voting South Carolina. “Once the media zeroes in on who they perceive to be the front-runners, it’s really hard for other candidates to get any air space or ink.”