WASHINGTON — Big donors to U.S. presidential campaigns are feeling the economic pinch from the coronavirus pandemic and holding on to their money just when the candidates — especially Democratic front-runner Joe Biden — need it most.
With stocks falling, businesses shrinking and unemployment soaring, donors of all sizes are feeling the effects. Billionaires counted on to fuel super PAC spending have seen their net worth plummet by anywhere from 10% to as much as 75%.
“There’s no question fundraising is going to be hurt,” said investor and Biden supporter Bernard Schwartz. “Biden has to do the best he can with what he has.”
The crunch comes at a particularly bad time for Biden, who was looking to capitalize on his wins in the March primaries as a selling point to donors. Since entering the race almost a year ago, the former vice president has lagged in fundraising, trailing his top Democratic rivals as well as President Donald Trump.
The $88 million he took in through February trails not only rival Bernie Sanders’s $169 million but is also less than former candidates Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg raised. Biden ended February with $12.1 million in the bank compared to $94.4 million for Trump.
Trump and the Republican National Committee have together raised $607 million for his reelection and are sitting on $225 million in cash at the end of February.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about fundraising during the shutdown.
Biden has relied heavily on in-person fundraising events and has yet to build the large base of donors who give smaller amounts of money online. Biden gets just 38% of his money from individuals who gave $200 or less, compared to 58% for Sanders and 53% for Trump, Federal Election Commission data shows.
“Between the global economy, between the stock market that is super confused right now, between running a small company and a small business, yes, I’m standing back,” Democratic donor Erika Karp, founder and chief executive officer of Cornerstone Capital Group, said about making political contributions at the moment. “There’s not a moment that goes by where everyone is not thinking about coronavirus.”
One of Biden’s Wall Street bundlers, who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak for the campaign, said politics is a low priority right now, and he has no events, not even virtual ones, planned for Biden.
As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Biden should be raking in donations now in preparation for the convention and the general election to follow. At the end of February 2016, Hillary Clinton had raised $160 million for her campaign, and had $31 million in the bank.
Biden said he had raised $33 million in the first half of March, already topping his best monthly total. But that was before social distancing and stay-at-home policies were put in place. Biden is also spending less than before the virus shut down campaigning. The campaign has largely stopped advertising since March 22.
Sarah Morgenthau, a member of Biden’s national finance committee, said donors were coalescing behind him and she was confident the campaign could raise enough money despite the outbreak.
“Is there going to be a dip because of coronavirus? Look, this is something that’s going to affect everybody,” Morgenthau said. “But we will have a very strong month and we will have the resources that we need to take us through the next set of primaries and to build the infrastructure we will need in November.”
Biden has attempted to replace in-person fundraisers with online ones, but numbers aren’t yet available for whether they’ve been successful. “It’s understandable but it’s disappointing,” Karp said of virtual fundraisers. She recalled meeting Barack Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton in person as an irreplaceable part of the process.
Some Democratic donors are putting their money toward coronavirus relief rather than political campaigns.
“I am not sure what other donors are feeling but for me, political donations have not been top of mind the last two weeks,” said Robert Wolf, a major Wall Street fundraiser for Obama and founder of 32 Advisors, a strategy and investment firm. “I have been focusing on the health and well-being of my family, friends and the community, working on my business from home, and giving to some charitable organizations on the front lines of the crisis.”
WHILE DONORS say that Trump’s fundraising will also be hurt by a poor economy, the president is much better prepared for the general election and can weather a downturn. “Biden needs to build his election airplane and fundraising apparatus in midair,” said Dan Eberhart, GOP bundler and chief executive officer of Canary Drilling Services LLC. “Trump’s is already built and operating.”
Super PACs could step in where individual donors to campaigns could not. Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, says it’s on track to meet its $150 million fundraising goal before the Democratic convention scheduled for July, but some of those large donors have taken a massive hit to their net worth.
FACEBOOK co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, who gave Priorities $6 million in 2016, has this year lost more than $1.8 billion of his net worth, which now stands at about $11.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Jim Simons, who with his wife, Marilyn Simons, gave Priorities $10 million in 2016, earned an estimated $1.73 billion in 2019. But his hedge fund Renaissance Technologies incurred double-digit losses in its two largest strategies in the first 2½ months of the year.
Michael Bloomberg in January didn’t rule out spending as much as $1 billion to defeat Trump, even if his own presidential effort failed. Instead, he said on March 20 he would transfer $18 million to the Democratic National Committee. He has also made donations to groups, including $2 million to Swing Left to aid Democrats in competitive races.
Among Republican mega-donors, the mood could be even less generous. Many of the party’s most prominent donors have fortunes concentrated in the hardest-hit sectors, including gaming, financials and oil and gas, which have all underperformed the broader market.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s net worth has dropped by almost $12 billion this year with much of his casino business shut down. Harold Hamm’s fortune plunged 75% to $2.6 billion as low oil prices crushed fracking companies including his Continental Resources Inc.
Party leaders expected both could be counted on to make big donations to super PACs. Trump Victory, which raises money that is split between the campaign and the RNC, has canceled its events, according to a fundraiser for the party.
Trump, who gave $66 million to his own 2016 campaign, isn’t supplying any of his own money for his reelection effort.
The Trump Organization has shut down six of its top seven revenue-producing properties.