Trump leads in polls but badly trails in crucial 2024 money race

Nancy Cook, Bill Allison and Joshua Green | (TNS) Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has an enthusiastic base and a polling advantage in swing states. He does not have anywhere near the amount of money as his rival, President Joe Biden.

Financial woes have become a major vulnerability for the presumptive Republican nominee as he enters what is expected to be the most expensive presidential election in history. Trump has racked up millions in legal bills, and faces a Monday deadline to post bond for a $454 million civil judgment, compounding the problem.

The gulf between the two candidates’ bank accounts is stark. Biden and the Democratic Party began March with $155 million, according to the president’s campaign. That’s more than three times the $50 million Trump and the Republican National Committee had on hand, according to their most recent Federal Election Commission filings. Adding Trump’s allied super political action committee brings his total to $76 million, still well short of Biden.

Other super PACs that backed Trump in the past and support Republican congressional candidates have $26 million on hand, according to the latest federal filings. By contrast, Biden-allied super PACs have $64 million, with groups pledging to spend at least $900 million to aid the president’s reelection.

The former president’s team is trying to close the gap. Trump national finance director Meredith O’Rourke has ramped up prospective donor outreach, according to people familiar with the effort. The goal is to secure checks now to show Trump has a viable campaign cash apparatus.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump is personally calling wealthy donors, people familiar with the appeals said. Potential contributors have been invited to dine at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida or attend fundraisers at private homes. On Super Tuesday, the main Trump super PAC held a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser for high-net-worth donors, including New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.

“They have their foot on the gas because they have some ground to make up,” Henry Barbour, a RNC member, said about the fundraising efforts.

Trump allies and advisers expect they will not match Biden’s prolific money operation, according to people familiar with the matter. But Trump’s aides expressed confidence he would raise enough to compete in November. It’s a familiar position for Trump, who won in 2016 despite raising about half of Hillary Clinton and her allies’ total.

Reluctant donors

Trump’s toxic brand in affluent coastal enclaves and the four criminal cases against him have hampered his fundraising.

One Republican with deep Wall Street connections said other Republicans he knows are looking to give to entities that do not disclose their contributors’ identities. They are unwilling to face scrutiny from their employees and the press about Trump’s latest incendiary comments on immigrants, minorities and NATO allies.

Donors are also questioning whether their money will fund Trump’s legal fees. Trump has spent $64 million on lawyers and is on track to exhaust the funds he has used to pay them in the coming months. That means he will have to go the RNC — where leadership has said they won’t pay — or rely on donors to help defray costs.

Many Wall Street donors are instead giving to Republicans trying to regain control of the Senate, one person said. Very few like Biden, but they remain wary of financially supporting Trump again.

Early fundraising data also shows Trump’s once mighty small-dollar fundraising machine might be faltering. In 2023, he raised $50.4 million from small donors, about $82 million less than he did in 2019, when was an incumbent with no primary opposition.

Trump’s relative lack of campaign funds has resulted in a leaner event schedule.

His team is closely monitoring spending and selectively picking when and where to hold rallies, sometimes using smaller venues. The campaign has reduced rally costs by working with the same production company. Trump’s staff is roughly half the size it was at this point in 2020.

Money push

Major donors could help close the cash gap with Biden. Hedge fund manager John Paulson is hosting an April 6 fundraiser in Palm Beach, which one person familiar with the event called a sign of life for Trump’s money operation.

More than 50 people plan to attend, including some who have recently re-entered Trump’s sphere. That signals Trump is winning over some in the donor class who were hesitant to back him.

Among the expected attendees are Republican mega-donors Rebekah and Robert Mercer, who had stepped back from politics, and hotel developer Robert Bigelow, Ron DeSantis’s biggest primary donor who has pledged to give Trump $20 million. Another one-time DeSantis supporter, investor Omeed Malik, is also listed on an invitation.

Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn, Florida Crystals Corp.’s Pepe Fanjul and former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also plan to be there. It costs $814,600 per person — the maximum donation to the campaign, RNC and state parties — to sit at Trump’s table and get a photo, according to the invite. For $250,000, attendees can get “VIP dinner seating, reception and photo opportunity.”

Hosting intimate dinners with wealthy donors and the former president will be a hallmark of the campaign’s fundraising, said people familiar with the plans.

New groups

Other conservative organizations could provide an option for donors worried about suffering reputational damage from supporting the former president’s campaign, or their money being diverted to his legal defense.

Dark-money groups, such as activist Leonard Leo’s Marble Freedom Trust, which do not have to disclose donors but can contribute to super PACs, could see a surge in contributions. New Trump-allied super PACs are being created to reach reluctant donors. A representative for Leo did not immediately reply to a request to comment.

Funding Trump’s attorneys is not a concern for all of his supporters.

“If the guy wants to win, I don’t care where the money goes,” said New York grocery magnate John Catsimatidis.

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(With assistance from Hadriana Lowenkron, Stephanie Lai and Amanda Gordon.)

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