Cash flow reshapes the GOP presidential race


The 2024 presidential election is just beginning, and the campaign is already unfolding at a faster, louder, and more expensive pace than ever before.

Republican candidates and groups have already spent nearly $30 million on ads in the party’s primary this year, according to data from ad tracking firm AdImpact. When they cross that threshold on Saturday, it will be 50 days before Democrats hit that spending mark during their open-ended presidential primary four years ago, and 137 days before it took Republicans to cross the $30 million threshold during their last open presidential election. race, in October 2015.

Most of the spending comes from super PACs, with former President Donald Trump’s MAGA Inc. spending to criticize Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and DeSantis’ Never Back Down PAC with positive points. And the fast pace underscores key dynamics shaping the Republican race for the White House.

Super PACs and megadonors are playing a bigger role than ever. Candidates have taken advantage of flexible campaign finance laws to prepare for this race, and save money to use or send to allies, for years before announcing their campaigns. Above all, the contest between Trump and DeSantis promises to be an all-out fight like never before.

«It’s a very competitive race on the Republican side to challenge Trump — the dynamics are just different from 2016,» said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who served as communications director for the senator’s 2016 presidential campaign. from Florida Marco Rubio. .

“This time, Trump is trying to take out some of his competitors early, the ‘kill ‘em in the cradle’ strategy,” Conant continued. «And some of the would-be challengers are trying to establish that they belong.»

The pace in the 2024 Republican primary is a massive escalation from the last time Republicans had an open presidential primary. Prior to 2016, the first dollar was not spent on ads until April 3, 2015. Spend reached $1 million in June, $10 million in August, $20 million in late September, and $30 million in October.

This year, the Republican presidential ad spend hit the $1 million mark on March 25, $10 million in late April, $20 million in early May and is expected to hit $30 million on May 27.

«Inflation also exists in politics,» Conant said. «It’s getting more expensive to reach voters, but it’s also easier to raise money than it used to be.»

In fact, DeSantis enters the 2024 race already backed by a $20 million donor: hotel mogul Robert Bigelow, per time magazine. It could end up being the largest super PAC donation in a presidential primary, except that tech billionaire Larry Ellison has given $35 million to a super PAC aligned with Sen. Tim Scott in recent years and is set to pump even more in 2024.

As far as candidates officially announcing campaigns, the primaries are just getting started, but those examples illustrate how the competition has really been going on for months or even years. Before launching his offer, Trump seeded his super PAC with tens of millions of dollars raised by one of his fundraising committees, largely from small donors, in 2021 and 2022. DeSantis appears poised to bolster his super PAC with over $80 million that was raised largely while he was running for re-election in Florida.

It’s not just Trump and DeSantis either. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley incubated a list of small donors at her political nonprofit organization for years before she spoke the words, «I’m running for president.» Scott amassed nearly $22 million in his Senate campaign account, all transferable to a presidential campaign, before officially beginning his 2024 bid with launch plans that included a multi-million dollar ad buy.

All the pre-planning helps explain why the presidential campaign has been able to accelerate so quickly compared to the last two. Candidates who can only raise a few thousand dollars at most from each donor need time to accumulate funds, and the Democratic presidential field in 2020 was super averse to the PAC.

The ad war hadn’t really started at this point in the 2016 Republican race, either. The top spender as of late May 2015 was a nonprofit, Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, which had spent less than $400,000 on attack Republican Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul.

But much of the spending of early 2024 is rooted in tactics tested in past campaigns, when politicians and political operatives explored the blurry limits of campaign finance law.

Former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush revolutionized presidential campaign fundraising in 2015 with a novel strategy: Before officially announcing that he was a candidate, he raised $100 million in a super PAC that would continue to support his candidacy. Now, super PAC pre-fundraising has become a regular feature of campaigns, despite questions about whether the strategy adheres to the spirit of the law that restricts the amount candidates can raise from donors.

Former business executive Carly Fiorina’s campaign outsourced much of its campaign operation to a super PAC that supported her candidacy. This election cycle, the DeSantis campaign is expected to start with more than enough resources, but Never Back Down signals its intent to build a grassroots organization, traditionally the realm of the campaign itself, to augment campaign operations.

The maturation of these strategies meant that the teams of Trump and DeSantis were ready for battle immediately this year. And it’s not going to slow down any time soon.

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