Can Biden’s campaign fundraising buy him a second term?

Also, why it might not.

Obama, Biden, and Clinton, wearing suits, stand on a blue curtained and carpeted stage on which three white armchairs are arranged.

US President Joe Biden appears with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton during a fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on March 28, 2024. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden is swimming in cash, but short on voters’ support.

The president has narrowed Donald Trump’s polling advantage in recent weeks but still trails his Republican rival both nationally and in the Rust Belt’s pivotal battlegrounds, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Biden’s approval rating, meanwhile, remains at a dismal 39 percent.

But the president’s fundraising data tells a sunnier story. Biden and his party began March with $155 million at their disposal, more than three times the $50 million that Trump and the GOP had cobbled together.

Biden grew this cash advantage Thursday. At a fundraiser in New York City, the president appeared with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mindy Kaling, and Queen Latifah — and collected at least $25 million from wealthy, celebrity-obsessed Democratic donors in the process. No one has ever raised more money from a single political event, according to the Biden campaign.

Of course, in modern American politics, parties and presidential candidates aren’t the only major political spenders. Trump-aligned super PACs have around $52 million on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. But Biden-aligned super PACs have $64 million, and Democratic groups (including major unions) have collectively pledged $900 million to the president’s reelection.

For anxious Democrats, all this raises a question: How many votes can a cash advantage buy?

Put differently, does Biden’s fundraising supremacy mean that today’s polls are probably underestimating his eventual support? After all, between now and November, nearly $1 billion worth of pro-Biden content is poised to inundate the airwaves.

The answer to these questions will depend on two considerations: Whether Biden can maintain his current cash advantage, and how much influence TV ads can exert over voters’ perceptions of the race.

It’s impossible to know either of these things with certainty. It appears likely, however, that Biden’s team will outspend Trump’s, and that this will improve the president’s standing, if only by a tiny margin.

Trump’s legal troubles could keep his campaign cash-poor

It’s far from certain that the president will retain his current fundraising advantage through the end of the campaign. At this point in the 2020 cycle, Trump had outraised Biden by $187 million, only to see the Democrat outspend him by November.

Trump enjoys the goodwill of myriad billionaires; one of his upcoming fundraisers is expected to feature Wall Street tycoon Robert Mercer and fossil fuel magnate Harold Hamm. In theory, a super-rich individual could erase Biden’s financial edge by cutting a single check to a dark money group.

This said, it seems likely that the Biden campaign will remain more flush than its rival through Election Day. Small-dollar donations reportedly account for roughly 97 percent of all contributions to the president’s reelection effort. This means that Biden can keep returning to his existing donors many times before they exceed the FEC’s $3,300 cap on individual campaign contributions.

Further, as the Democratic Party has claimed a growing share of upper middle-class voters in the Trump era, it has outraised the GOP in both of the last two presidential cycles.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s financial difficulties are a drain on his campaign’s coffers. The mogul’s personal legal expenses consumed at least $50 million of his super PAC’s funds. And Trump’s legal bills will only mount in the months ahead, as his criminal trials near.

Even without these attorneys fees, Trump would be pressed for cash. Earlier this month, he was forced to post a $91.6 million bond after a civil court found him liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of the writer E. Jean Carroll. Soon, he will need to put up a $175 million bond to cover a civil fraud judgment against him in New York state.

Trump stands to make a windfall from his social media company, Truth Social, going public. But he cannot sell his shares in that firm for six months.

All this means that pro-Trump groups are likely to divert a substantial portion of their funds away from ads or field operations and toward the candidate’s lawyers over the coming months. This reality, in turn, is making it more difficult for Trump to raise money. Many conservative donors are reluctant to give to Trump, since they fear their contributions will go toward defraying a billionaire’s legal expenses, rather than advancing right-wing policy, according to both Bloomberg and the New York Times.

The case for thinking that money can buy Biden love (from an electorally significant fraction of the electorate)

Biden is on track to outspend Trump this fall — whether he can buy himself a significantly higher share of the vote is another question.

The case for thinking that Biden’s financial edge could be decisive is straightforward. The most up-to-date political science research indicates that television ads are capable of changing the voting intentions of a tiny — but potentially decisive — fraction of the electorate.

A 2021 paper from the political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Christopher Warshaw offers a comprehensive look at how TV ads influenced US voting behavior from 2000 through 2018. In the study, the researchers tallied up the total number of Democratic and Republican ads that aired during the final two months of each election in a given media market. Then, they compared election outcomes in areas where Democrats aired more ads than Republicans did to outcomes in counties that border those areas — but which fell outside of a designated media market, and were therefore exposed to fewer political commercials. By exploiting these arbitrary media market borders, the researchers were able to estimate the electoral impact of a Democratic ad-advantage.

Specifically, they found that, based on historical precedents, a Democratic presidential candidate who aired 100 more ads than their Republican adversary in a given market would expect to see their vote-share increase by 0.018 percentage points in that area.

That’s a minuscule margin. But campaigns with large financial advantages can air hundreds — or even thousands — more ads in some places than their rivals. Sides, Vavreck, and Warshaw estimated that the “upper bound” on what percentage of the vote a Democratic presidential campaign can realistically gain through dominating the airwaves is 0.5 percentage points. That is small but potentially decisive; had Hillary Clinton increased her share of Michigan’s vote by 0.5 points in 2016, she would have won the state.

Critically, the political scientists found that — contrary to a common assumption — there is seemingly no point at which airing more advertisements stops gaining your campaign more votes. Even when the airwaves are already inundated, failing to keep pace with your rival’s ad spending comes at a cost to your support.

These findings are all based on the outcomes of presidential elections held before 2017. And there’s some reason to think that TV ads may actually have become more effective at persuading voters since then.

This is because not all political ads are created equal. Some resonate with voters while others can actually backfire. Campaigns have grown more aware of this fact in just the past few years, and have ramped up efforts to test the efficacy of ads before broadcasting them.

A 2024 study of campaign ad-testing illuminates this reality. Researchers gained access to an archive of 146 advertising experiments conducted by Democratic campaigns in 2018 and 2020 over the platform Swayable. Analyzing the outcomes of these tests, the study’s authors reached two main findings: First, some ads were much more effective than others. And second, there were no consistent patterns to which appeals performed best.

The latter point is important. Historically, campaigns have often relied on broad theories of political persuasion to inform their ad strategies. But the Swayable ad tests indicate that such general rules might be unreliable. Researchers gauged the efficacy of negative ads versus positive ones, emotional appeals versus fact-heavy spots, and testimonials from supporters versus statements from the candidate. Their conclusion on which work better can be summarized in two words: It depends.

Some ad strategies that worked for Democratic House candidates in 2018 were no longer effective in 2020. The specific context of each election year and race appeared to change what voters did and did not find compelling.

This suggests that, until recently, campaigns may have been routinely airing ineffective commercials on the basis of flawed political theories. In just the last couple election cycles, however, Democrats have dramatically increased their use of ad testing. In 2018, Democrats tested ads for only six of the 30 “toss-up” US House races over Swayable; in 2022, the party tested ads for 20 of the 36 “toss-up” contests. Notably, in the latter year, Democratic candidates performed much better in highly contested races (where the party aired lots of TV ads) than in other races (where it aired relatively few).

Ad testing is very expensive. Not only do you need to hire consultancies that can assemble statistically significant survey pools, but you also need to pay to fully produce many ads that you don’t end up airing. And yet, according to the 2024 study, ads vary so much in their efficacy that campaigns would benefit from dedicating at least 10 percent of their media budgets to testing.

For these reasons, ad-testing may “compound money’s influence in elections,” according to the study’s authors. After all, better-funded campaigns can not only air more ads than their opponents but also more effective ads, since they’ll be capable of paying for more thorough ad experiments.

Put all this together, and you end up with a case for thinking that Biden’s fundraising advantage could increase his vote-share in close swing-states by a decisive margin.

Why money might matter less in 2024

All this said, there’s also a plausible case for thinking that ads will be less effective in 2024 than in a typical election.

One of the central findings of Sides, Vavreck, and Warshaw’s study is that ads are much more effective in down-ballot races than in presidential ones. While ad dominance could only gain Democrats 0.5 percentage points of vote-share at the presidential level, according to the paper, that figure was 1.6 points in attorney general races, 1.5 points in state treasurer races, 1.35 points in gubernatorial races, 1 point in Senate races, and 0.9 points in House races.

The theoretical explanation for this discrepancy is simple: Ads are most effective when voters lack strong, preexisting opinions about the candidates. The typical independent voter knows how they feel about Joe Biden, but probably couldn’t tell you a thing about the Democratic candidate for their district’s state Senate seat. An advertisement is therefore more likely to change their mind about who to support in a state Senate race than in a presidential one.

This is an unfavorable dynamic for Biden. If ads are less effective when the candidates are already well-known, then one would expect an ad advantage to be worth much less in 2024 than in the average presidential election. After all, we’re looking at a rematch between one of the most widely discussed politicians on the planet and a man who has been working in the White House for 12 of the last 16 years.

“We’re in an election where people know a lot about each candidate,” Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann told me. “So I think if you had to guess in advance, you would say that ads would be less effective this year than they were in the past.”

The 2016 election also featured a race between two candidates who’d spent decades in the public eye. That year, Hillary Clinton greatly outspent Donald Trump on the airwaves, which, of course, wasn’t enough to save her campaign.

All this suggests that Biden’s fundraising prowess should gain him a little bit of support. But well-funded ad campaigns (almost certainly) won’t be enough to erase the president’s polling deficit.

Combine a cash advantage with an improving economy and increasingly unpopular GOP agenda, however, and Mindy Kaling’s investment in the president just might pay off.


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