On December 3, 2019, California Senator Kamala Harris announced her decision to drop out of the 2020 presidential race.
“I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Harris wrote in a Medium article, which was also sent out to supporters through email and social media. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.”
The Harris campaign’s inability to fund itself raises important questions about the future of political campaigns in the United States. Could the Harris campaign have been saved by a last-minute large-dollar donation?
The short answer is “maybe.” It’s difficult to give a definitive yes or no to this question because of the trends apparent in Harris’s funding, as well as funding for female candidates in previous election seasons. While a large-dollar donation could have helped Harris remain in the race, it’s difficult to tell whether funding from high-value individuals could have led Harris to a line on the 2020 ballot.
Harris built a campaign that eschewed funding from corporate PACs in favor of donations from individuals–“Just people, like you!”, said the campaign website.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), funding for Harris’s 2020 campaign came mainly from individual donors, totaling around $25 million. (Of that, only $2.67 million came from leadership PAC fundraising.) The CRP reflects around $36.7 million in funding for the Joe Biden campaign, $60 million for Elizabeth Warren, and $73.7 million for Bernie Sanders.
Using the same resource, the Trump 2020 campaign, by comparison, has raised more than $184 million in combined funding from campaign committees and outside groups.
So, why are non-Republican candidates having trouble raising money? Part of the difference comes from decisions like Harris’s to turn away funding from corporate PACs. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is the relatively uneven playing field. As incumbent, Trump has the benefit of running against a comparatively lower number of candidates from his own party, while non-Republican candidates have much higher competition for funders.
In the wake of Harris’s announcement, competition is fierce to attract the support of her National Finance Committee.
“Picking up members of Harris’ donor network would be a boon for the remaining candidates in the 2020 field,” writes Brian Schwartz in a report for CNBC. “Many of the contenders have been battling it out for fundraising supremacy in order to have enough resources to compete in the more delegate-rich primary states. That urgency to gobble up more donors will be even more prevalent in the months ahead since candidates Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are billionaires and have extensive personal funds to compete in the race.”
This mention of self-funding political campaigns reflects part of Kamala Harris’s decision to drop out of the race. “I’m not a billionaire,” she wrote in her Medium article. “I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.”
According to a Center for Responsive Politics report from earlier in the year, just over 3% of the female donor base donated to multiple Democratic women running in the presidential primary. The CRP draws connections between these donations and female-centric donor circles that aim to generate support for female candidates.
The CRP report included a quote from Stefanie Conahand, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s finance director: “‘If you want a woman to be on the ticket, give to all of them.’ That’s what [Gillibrand] always says.”
However, this strategy may not have panned out for Democratic candidates, especially given that Gillibrand withdrew from the race in August 2019. What’s passed is past, but perhaps more consolidated funding could have given Harris a stronger foothold to climb into candidacy.
The same holds true for Republican candidates in Congressional elections. A New York Times article from the 2018 election season characterized the difficulty female candidates have raising money compared to their male counterparts.
“If you’re a woman running for office, you come in, they grill you on your policies, they grill you on everything, and then they give you $1,000,” said Sarah Chamberlain, chief executive of the Main Street Partnership, an organization that supports moderate Republican candidates. “A man goes in, they grill him a bit, but they also talk sports and other things, then they give him $2,700.”
According to the article, women donated around $126 million to Democratic women and $85 million to Republican men in the 2018 Congressional elections. This reflects an increase from the 2016 elections, but men still contributed 65% of donations to Congressional campaigns. So, how can we encourage more women to donate to such high-profile elections as those we’ll see in 2020?
As we get closer to the 2020 election, Harris’s drop from the race opens doors for other female and feminist candidates vying for support from her funders. At the same time, her drop represents a frustrating continuation of elections past.
Feminist funding will be critical to ensuring a candidate who espouses feminist ideals will land on the ballot next year. 2020 is a landmark year for female candidates, but without strong, collective support from female donors, the country will find itself in an election cycle similar to those from years past: male-dominated, PAC-dominated, and decided by who raises the most money, not who will be best for our country.
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