How Campaign Finance Reports Predict the Presidential Race

It seems like Kamala Harris is the real party favorite

Jennifer Victor
GEN
Published in
5 min readApr 24, 2019

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Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty

Here’s a helpful tip: If you want to know who is winning the 2020 campaign finance race so far, don’t look at the candidates’ financial totals.

We recently received the first report of the campaign finance status of the one Republican and 16 Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in 2020. Now comes the endless chatter: By nearly any account, President Donald Trump’s overall haul of more than $30 million appears to be an unmatched feat. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders outpaced all of his opponents by bringing in more than $18 million in the first quarter of 2019. The next closest candidate is Kamala Harris, who brought in $12 million.

But what do these numbers really tell us? The truth is if we want to use campaign finance reports to help us understand which candidate is in the lead or has the most momentum or who has the best shot at winning, we should not be looking at the totals that the candidates have raised. Rather, we should be focused on the breakdown of individual small donors, individual large donors, and other transfers.

At this stage in the presidential race, it is relatively easy to boil down the candidates’ finances into a few categories, and we can use each of these categories to help us understand something about each candidate’s potential.

If you want to know which candidate has the most widespread support and potential for raising more money, look at the “small individual donations” — that is, donations under $200. When a large percentage of a candidate’s funders fall into this category, it suggests that a large number of people support the candidate; moreover, since each individual can donate a maximum of $2,800 (per candidate, per campaign), candidates could eventually tap these donors again.

To find out which candidate has the most support from party elites, turn to the individual donations greater than $200. The donation and endorsement behavior of elites is known to be a quality indicator of party support for a candidate. Support from elite party actors like governors, senators, and former presidents can motivate more support from more voters and help a candidate build a…

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Jennifer Victor
GEN
Writer for

Associate professor political science, Schar School Policy and Government, George Mason Univ.; Congress, parties, campaign finance, networks. Blogger @MisofFact