Biden’s Campaign Is Short on Cash When It Needs It the Most


(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden is struggling to regain his lead in the polls and fend off an onslaught from President Donald Trump. But he may be too short on cash to be able to do either as well as he’d like.

Federal Election Commission filings released Tuesday showed that Biden spent $17.7 million in the third quarter, or $1.9 million more than he raised. The deficit spending, unusual for a major candidate at this point in an election cycle, left the former vice president with less than $9 million, the smallest cash reserve among the five top polling candidates in the race.

Presidential campaigns have to balance building organization and getting their message out in the year before the primaries while accumulating financial reserves for the nominating contests themselves.

But with just four months to go before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, Biden ended the third-quarter period with less money than he started, even as his Democratic rivals have accumulated formidable war chests to carry them into the first caucuses and primaries.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently risen to a statistical tie with Biden for first place in the polls, had a $16.7 million advantage over him in cash on hand. And Biden is even further behind Senator Bernie Sanders, who had the biggest cushion, with a $24.7 million edge. The shortfall puts Biden at a serious disadvantage when it comes to competing with his better-funded rivals in advertising and staff on the ground.

“It’s coming close to make-or-break time for Biden,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political fundraising. “It’s hard to see how he makes that up when the gap has grown as much as it has.”

Such shortfalls are rare for successful campaigns, Krumholz added.

In 2007, Barack Obama had $36 million in the bank at the end of September, while rival Hillary Clinton had $50.5 million. In 2015, she built a $33 million cushion while Sanders had $27.1 million cash on hand at the end of the third quarter. All four remained active until the last primary vote was counted.

John Kerry’s presidential campaign was an exception: He burned through most of his cash in the last six months of 2003, eventually having to borrow $6 million to stay in the race. Kerry won the nomination, but was short of money through much of the campaign, and couldn’t afford to effectively respond to attack ads criticizing his service in Vietnam.

Biden told reporters Wednesday that he’s confident he’ll have the resources he’ll need to compete. “Our fundraising is building,” he said. “We’ve raised a lot of money online and we’ve raised money offline as well. So we feel confident we’re going to be ready.”

Biden is already the target of an $8 million ad buy on television and digital platforms launched by the Trump campaign in early voting states. The ads say Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating a company where his son Hunter served as a director. There’s no evidence either Biden did anything improper, but the candidate has had to address the allegations from the trail.

He was slipping in some polls before that started, and on Tuesday in Ohio, for the first time in a 2020 Democratic debate, he wasn’t the focus of other candidates seeking to gain traction with voters. Warren drew criticisms from almost every other candidate on the stage, including Biden. And she had the most speaking time, according a tracker maintained by the New York Times.

Campaigns with money can go on the attack against rivals or highlight a candidate’s strengths with heavy ad spending, which can move poll numbers. Billionaire Tom Steyer spent $47 million of his own money in the third quarter, and managed to qualify for the debate stage by quickly rising to 2% in the polls and collecting 165,000 unique donors.

More experienced politicians, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, had to end their presidential campaigns in part because they couldn’t raise enough money.

In addition to Steyer, Biden was outspent in the third quarter by Sanders, whose outlays amounted to $21.6 million, and Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who both topped $18 million.

The spending increases were driven in part by television buys. All four campaigns began reserving spots in states with early primaries. Warren booked $6.8 million worth of time, all in 2020, according to data from Advertising Analytics, which tracks spending on political commercials. Close to a third of the $5.1 million worth of ad time that Biden’s campaign has reserved are in 2019 as he tries to get his message out to voters and increase his support. His campaign’s finances might make that harder.

“If you don’t have money, the odds are stacked against you,” Krumholz said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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