For South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg $7 million means he has broken through. He's a serious contender without baggage, with plenty of free media interest and with an identity (37 years old, gay, small city mayor) that differentiates him from others and from the kind of politicians who used to dominate presidential politics.
Buttigieg's fundraising is remarkable given where he started.
"Unlike some of his 2020 primary opponents, Buttigieg didn't start with a ready-made digital fundraising program to tap into. In an email to supporters, Buttigieg said he 'started with just about 20,000 people on our email list, and not many people even knew who I was.' In contrast, [Sen. Kamala] Harris and [Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand sunk millions into their programs during their Senate bids, while O'Rourke built an enormous list of supporters during his Texas Senate bid last cycle.
"Buttigieg only dropped $15,000 on Facebook ads in the last three months, near the bottom of the 2020 field.
Candidates often spend significant money on the platform to collect emails and small-dollar donations from supporters."
For Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., $12 million with 218,000 individual contributions means media should start covering her (and her rallies, which attract thousands of people) on a par with the four B's (four white men -- Joe Biden, Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Bernie Sanders). She is a top tier candidate, the only African American near the top and the leading woman contender.
For a freshman senator she's shown organizational and fundraising prowess normally associated with much more established figures. (Running successfully for statewide office in California, home to nearly 40 million Americans, means you likely have a supersized campaign operation.)
For Sanders $18 million might raise a few eyebrows. This guy has the benefit of nearly 100 percent name recognition and an entire presidential operation and fundraising list that no other candidate (save former Vice President Joe Biden) can claim. If Sanders' money haul isn't as far above his lesser-known rivals as are his polling numbers one has to wonder whether his polling simply reflects his name recognition and whether his campaign has the same level of enthusiasm it did in 2016.
O'Rourke, who has yet to release his figures, has a tricky expectations problem. He raised the most money of any candidate, over $6 million, in his first 24 hours in the race. If he didn't continue that pace has he "lost" momentum? His real competitor in the money race at this stage is Sanders. Fairly or not, the first quarter winner will be perceived as the top competition to Biden, who has yet to enter the race officially. The runner-up gets tagged with headlines like "Did Sanders miss his moment?" or "Is Beto-momentum fading?"
Now take a breath and consider how little money meant to the outcome of the 2016 Republican primary. Jeb Bush had gobs of money and ultimately very little support. Former congressman Ron Paul used to outstrip his rivals in fundraising but never came close to gaining his party's nomination.
To be clear: Money affects how the media treat candidates, which in turn can affect voters' impression of who is viable (just ask Buttigieg). However, voters themselves don't care if O'Rourke has more than Sanders or Harris has more than Buttigieg. It's enough to be in the "serious contender" category for them to perceive that at this stage in the race these candidates are at the top of the heap.
Of course at the end of next quarter (which comes right after the first pair of presidential debates on June 26 and 27) the storylines will get rewritten. In truth, having the most money may impress the media but all a candidate really needs is enough money to keep building a national campaign.
That certainly won't be a problem for Harris and the B's.
Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.