On Thursday night, Rufus Gifford was supposed to host a fundraiser for Joe Biden. The Midtown Manhattan house party was targeted to the LGBT community, and it had already sold out, 75 tickets at $2,800 each. It’s not happening, to state the obvious. “The priority has to be public health,” says Gifford, who was the finance director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and then became the U.S. ambassador to Denmark. “The campaign pulled down the event last week, which is totally understandable. The Democrats have been at a financial disadvantage to [Donald] Trump since he was inaugurated. I think the money will end up being there for Biden, but it’s going to be harder.”
There are urgent life-and-death worries facing the country and the world right now, so political fundraising is barely on the list. But Biden will likely be running a general election campaign very soon, and the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic collapse could blow a hole in his efforts to mount a fair spending fight with Trump. The incumbent had raised, as of January 31, a whopping $218 million while the Democrats were battling one another in a primary, with the Biden campaign getting off to a particularly slow start. “Obviously, Donald Trump as president and his campaign in 2016 invested really, really heavily in their digital assets, building up this massive fundraising list, getting data on all of their supporters down to their home address and all of that good stuff,” a digital operative for a former Democratic contender says. “Biden’s team didn’t take digital as seriously as it could have at first. It was a very old-school operation over there.”
Biden’s campaign was basically broke as recently as Super Tuesday, but rebounded in February as the former vice president jumped into the lead for the nomination over Bernie Sanders. “We have a pretty robust digital operation, and it is making a lot of strides,” says Remi Yamamoto, the traveling national press secretary for the Biden campaign (“though I’m not traveling much these days!” she adds). “We’re ramping up content to engage and speak with voters directly, and we’ve had scheduled fundraisers transitioned to virtual fundraisers. Since the beginning of this month we have set a number of daily records, including our best day of online fundraising, and for March, already, we have exceeded our best fundraising month.” The haul since March 1 is more than $35 million, with the majority of the donations coming online.
Veteran political money people are crossing their fingers. “I’ve never seen anything like this, where the presidential race isn’t even in the discussion right now, in mid-March,” a Democrat with deep connections in New York’s financial community says. “It’s the pandemic, it’s the Wall Street performance, it’s the economic slowdown. All that combines into tremendous uncertainty. It’s your health and your finances that are on the line. So writing a check to Joe Biden is not a major priority.” Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC run by a former Biden aide, raised nearly $4 million in less than three months at the end of 2019, and will no doubt aggressively solicit general election cash, particularly from institutional donors. And Mike Bloomberg could provide bottomless, if not officially coordinated, spending against Trump. Otherwise Biden will be playing fundraising catch-up during a time of unprecedented turmoil.
Gifford says he is actually less worried about Biden’s operation than he is about the surrounding Democratic money infrastructure. “I think Biden’s campaign will end up being fine. The low-dollar fundraising will be there,” he says. “My big concern is Democratic National Committee fundraising and state party fundraising. Those are so reliant on major donor fundraising and on events. This is what I worry about. It’s not so much about canceling our event this Thursday. It’s that no one can be planning for April and May. That’s the bigger issue. It’s not just that holding some big DNC gala might prove impossible. That would be a problem, for sure. But Tom Perez, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and all these people going around doing small meetings? If that travel is not happening, and we’re relying exclusively on digital and call time—it would be…okay. But it’s a concern. People are going to want to give to their local food bank and hospital and EMT staff—as they should. So it’s harder to make the argument during this time to invest in a politician. The worst thing you can do right now is to be tone-deaf in the way you are approaching fundraising. Everyone needs to take a breath. But if we’re still having this conversation in June, that becomes a real concern.” Though if Democrats still have any money to spend by next fall, Trump’s lethal incompetence dealing with the pandemic should provide more than enough motivation to send a few bucks to Biden.
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