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How 2020 Democrats’ fundraising numbers compare to each other — and to Trump

The past year marked dramatic changes and new trends in campaign finance. In 2019, two billionaires bankrolled their own presidential campaigns, while other candidates wooed big donors with pricey fundraisers. And some contenders struggled to take in enough cash to keep their campaigns running. The Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee joins Judy Woodruff to discuss 2019 money in politics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    2019 was a year of dramatic changes and new trends in campaign finance. Some presidential candidates spent big money wooing donors in order to meet new Democratic Party debate criteria.

    Two billionaires bankrolled their own campaigns, while other candidates struggled to raise enough money to keep their campaigns running.

    To talk about all this and more, I'm joined by The Washington Post's Michelle Ye Hee Lee, who covers money in politics.

    Michelle, good to see you. Thank you for joining us again on the "NewsHour."

    So, first of all, how does this year in fund-raising generally compare to other election years?

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

    There were some major new trends in the past year in political fund-raising, one of which is the rise of small-dollar donors and the power of online giving that really had to be harnessed by the Democratic candidates, especially because the Democratic National Committee made a donor threshold one of the qualifications for making it onto a debate stage.

    So we saw Democratic candidates, to varying degrees of success, be able to build online donation programs, reaching out to donors, grassroot supporters, just to even ask for a dollar or $5 at a time to help show momentum for their candidacy.

    It's been especially important because it was such a wide field to begin with, and still is quite large, with so many competitive candidates, that one or two or a handful, really, rise to the top by being able to tap into that online donor momentum.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting, because we have seen in the past some candidates raising big amounts of money through political action committees, so-called super PACs, super political action committees.

    Those are still around, but they just don't function the way they used to.

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

    They're still around.

    But we have seen in the Democratic presidential primary that there is almost a vilification of the participation of such donors and people who have ties to special interests. Increasingly, Democrats have begun to distance themselves from corporate PAC donations, fossil fuel money, you know, saying they won't take money from pharmaceutical executives.

    And so there have been almost these purity tests that have been set on each other in terms of the type of money that you should and can raise from. Some candidates still continue to raise money in these high-dollar fund-raisers, private events that cater to more wealthy donors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

    But others are still raising lots of money from a healthy small-dollar base.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look at sum of the numbers.

    We had the reporting period for the last quarter just end. And look at these numbers. Of course, leading off, President Trump raised $46 million, overshadowing any one of the other Democrats, but not so far behind him, Bernie Sanders, 34.5, Pete Buttigieg, 34.7.

    Joe Biden, just today, we learned he's come in third among the Democrats at 22.7.

    What do we learn about these numbers, Michelle?

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

    Well, of course, these are early looks at some of the most flattering figures. So, once the public filings are revealed, we will get to see exactly how much money they have to spend going into the early states.

    But what these figures released now shows is that there is a lot of donor energy that is forming on the left that a lot of strategists hope will eventually coalesce around the nominee.

    Meanwhile, President Trump is just rolling on forward with a very, very powerful reelection machine that raises a lot of money from both small donors and wealthy donors.

    The top fund-raisers so far have pretty much stayed in that place over the past — over the previous quarter too. And they're the top-polling candidates as well going into the early states. So, they really reflect just how unsettled the Democratic primary field still is and could be for another few weeks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But money has been something that eliminated — that has eliminated some of these candidates.

    I mean, as we said, just today, Julian Castro announced he is dropping out. He hasn't been able to raise money, get his numbers up in the polls.

    So, on the one hand, money matters. We know it's not the only thing that matters, but it clearly makes a difference for these candidates at this point.

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

    It can drive up a lot of momentum.

    For example, the Sanders campaign, when they came out with $34.5 million today, that was eye-popping. That's not only the biggest quarterly haul this year. It's one of the top quarterly hauls in an off-year in a presidential election.

    And that was especially remarkable compared to the previous quarter, when he was kind of stagnating in the polls. And then on the first day of the fourth-quarter fund-raising period, he had a heart attack, and people were asking how viable his candidacy was going to be, how this was going to affect him.

    But he really had a great revival and raised a ton of money. And going into the next few weeks, especially before the nitty-gritty details are made public about the money itself, this is going to help him generate a lot of new donors and donations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of interest in these numbers. Still waiting to hear from Elizabeth Warren.

    Michelle Ye Hee Lee, thank you very much.

  • Michelle Ye Hee Lee:

    Thank you.

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