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DeSantis' fundraising numbers mask potential problems

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he leaves the stage after speaking to the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) Summit 2023 in Arlington, Va., on Monday.
Jacquelyn Martin
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he leaves the stage after speaking to the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) Summit 2023 in Arlington, Va., on Monday.

The latest campaign finance data was released Saturday and gives a window into financial stability of the presidential campaigns.

Here are a few takeaways from the Federal Elections Commission reports:

1. DeSantis has a small-donor problem, which could be a long-term issue

Ron DeSantis' campaign is relying heavily on large donors, many of whom have already given the maximum allowed, as his campaign struggles to catch up to former President Trump in the GOP presidential primary, an NPR analysis of the most recent campaign finance data release shows.

In fact, 70% of DeSantis' donors have given the max.

Just 15% of DeSantis' contributions have come from small donors, those given less than $200. That indicates a potential long-term problem for the Florida governor's campaign. After entering with much fanfare, a number that low indicates a lack of grassroots support. For context, the Trump joint fundraising committee in the 2022 midterm cycle and Vivek Ramaswamy, another GOP candidate, pulled in more than half of their totals from small donors.

The data also show that DeSantis spent roughly $8 million in the first five-and-a-half weeks of his campaign. That's a rate of about $1.5 million a week. While DeSantis has raised the most money of the GOP presidential candidates – just over $20 million and still has $12 million cash on hand – at a rate of $1.5 million a week, he would need about $42 million more to make it to the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses.

(Also, $3 million of the $20 million DeSantis raised is earmarked for the general election and cannot be used for the primary, as Politico notes.)

It is likely why DeSantis is reportedly shedding staff, letting go of a dozen staffers in a cost-cutting measure, according to NBC News. It also likely means he is going to be relying heavily on the super PAC supporting him to run ads and do a lot of the messaging work usually reserved for the candidate and campaign.

Legally, candidates and super PACs supporting them are not allowed to have any contact.

2. The health of Trump's finances is difficult to assess at this point

Trump has different committees raising money — the campaign, a joint fundraising committee and a PAC supporting him. The joint fundraising committee, set up before this presidential election, is able to transfer him campaign money, and has done so to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

But these committees have a different reporting deadline than the campaign itself. The end of this month is the next one, so the full picture is not yet clear. That's the case, by the way, for super PACs supporting the rest of these campaigns, and these super PACs have been generally spending just slightly less than the campaigns themselves.

The Trump campaign says it raised more than $35 million this quarter combined with the joint fundraising committee. Only $17.7 million, though, was reported, as of Saturday's deadline, from the campaign itself this quarter.

That did include a transfer of about $15 million from the joint fundraising committee. The New York Times has reported that some of the money from the joint fundraising committee has gone to another PAC as a way to pay his legal bills. Trump has been indicted in two different states and could face more charges related to election interference and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

But Trump likely does not face the grassroots fundraising problem of DeSantis. In the 2022 midterm cycle, the joint fundraising committee raised more than $150 million, and more than half came from small donors.

3. Rich guys are burning through their own money

Aside from Trump, two other Republican candidates are very wealthy – Ramaswamy, a former tech CEO estimated to be worth about $630 million, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who is a billionaire.

Ramaswamy has either donated or loaned himself $16 million so far, while Burgum has loaned himself $10.2 million, according to the federal campaign fundraising data.

Ramaswamy also spent more than $10 million so far, the most of any GOP presidential primary candidate's campaign. That's a burn rate of 53%. Burgum, who was only in the race three weeks when these reports had to be filed, has also spent a significant amount of what he's poured in. He spent a total of $8.1 million. That's a 69% burn rate.

Ramaswamy has raised about $3 million from donors so far, less than DeSantis, Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ($7.6 million) and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott ($7 million), but more than former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ($1.7 million), Burgum ($1.6 million), former Vice President Mike Pence ($1.2 million), Miami Mayor Francis Suarez ($945,000), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson ($502,000) and former Rep. Will Hurd ($270,000).

4. RFK Jr. likely won't beat Biden, but there's no denying there's a slice of the country listening to him

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a vaccine conspiracy theorist critical of the war in Ukraine and the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, who is challenging President Biden in the Democratic primary, has raised about $6.4 million so far.

He has $4.5 million cash on hand, more than a third of the money he raised came from small donors, and he has not loaned himself any money despite his family's wealth. (His family is overwhelmingly opposed to him running.)

About $100,000 of the $4 million in larger donations to him has actually come from an unusual crossover of donors to Republicans DeSantis and Trump.

If he were running in the GOP primary, RFK Jr. would be fifth in both total raised from individuals and cash on hand.

Now, his totals are nowhere close to what Biden has raised for his reelection, so he's not a viable threat to Biden's renomination. With all of Biden's committees combined, the president raked in $72 million in the second quarter alone, way more than any Republican candidate.

But Kennedy's total is certainly enough to be able to sustain a lean campaign and make a push that continues to gain attention.

Other notable points:

  • Scott has the deepest pockets of the GOP candidates with $21 million cash on hand because he's dipping into money he has left over from his Senate campaigns. But his spending is outpacing what he's raising. He has raised $7.6 million in this campaign, but spent $8.3 million, a burn rate of 109%. 
  • Christie raised $1.6 million for this quarterly report, which covers just the first three weeks of his campaign. While that isn't a huge sum, he only spent $66,000, a burn rate of just 4%. Christie doesn't have a huge operation, and he's relying largely on earned media, in other words, media coverage that gets him attention. With those factors and the super PAC supporting him, he'll likely be able to stick around.
  • Pence is struggling to sustain a serious campaign. It wasn't clear what Pence's base would be, and the donors just aren't there. He's raised $1.2 million total. Now, he's only spent 6% of what he's raised and has $1 million cash on hand, but it's likely going to be Iowa or bust for the former vice president.
  • Suarez announced two weeks before the end of the filing deadline, but it looks like he went to the well with some of his known donors. He raised $945,000, but 97% of it came from larger donors. He's going to have to gain more grassroots support to have a real shot – even at just gaining a lot of attention for a potential VP slot, if that's what he wants.
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.