On Wednesday, the quarterly presidential campaign filing reports were made available to the public. Voters can now access this quarter's records, and get a look at who or what is bankrolling the 2016 campaigns and how those campaigns are spending that money.
Under federal election law, campaigns are required to disclose the details of their quarterly fundraising to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Many candidates have already released their fundraising totals and other selected figures in a show of force, giving a picture of who is leading the money race in the fight for each party's nomination -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leading the Democratic field and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush leading the Republican side.
We will, however, have to wait longer to receive full fundraising information from outside groups supporting or opposing the campaigns, such as super PACs and nonprofits. These organizations have minimal filing and disclosure requirements, and the earliest reports are expected to come later this month.
With that in mind, we still have a good picture of how the presidential campaigns are functioning and what we can expect from them in the short and long term.
One thing to look for is the quantity of small donors contributing to each campaign, and the proportion of total campaign fundraising efforts. Candidates who receive predominantly small donations -- like Dr. Ben Carson (R) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D), both of whom have run their campaigns almost exclusively on donations less than $200 each -- are more likely to draw not only upon grassroots financing but also grassroots (and lower-cost) voter mobilization efforts as the race continues.
Candidates like Bush and Clinton, by contrast, will likely report a much higher proportion of donors contributing $200 or more, reaching as high as the $2,700 FEC limit. The Bush and Clinton reports will more than likely reinforce the establishment support they are receiving -- and will presumably continue to receive.
Where the Money is Going
The filing reports also provide an excellent indication of how strong the appeal is for each candidate, as signified by how they are spending their money on voter contact efforts.
At this stage in the race, since success in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire comes from town halls, events, and other retail-style methods as opposed to TV and radio ads, candidates will not be spending big bucks on expensive voter contact strategies. Instead, look for how much each candidate is spending on fundraising costs – buying voter files and sending out mailers – as well as the administrative costs they spend on staff, offices, and other early campaign infrastructure.
Earlier on in campaigns, candidates like to conserve funds until the primaries get closer. However, with the Republican debate looming, there is increased pressure on candidates, particularly to the right, to qualify for one of the top ten ranks in the national polls needed to appear on the debate stage – which would be a tremendous boon to their candidacy. Expect to see a good amount of money spent already in paid media on this quarter's filings as well as a marked increase in next quarter's.
Presidential races, especially at the top-tier, attract the best and brightest campaign operatives, and they come with a hefty price tag. Candidates who are able to raise the most money will be able to bring on the services of the best quality staff, so look for who is doling out the biggest paychecks. Dr. Carson's campaign manager, for example, is making $17,500 per month, projected to have an annual salary of $210,000 – tens of thousands more than 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's manager made ($165,000 per year). Investment in quality staff in the early stages is crucial, so expect those that have spent more in this quarter to be geared for a long run in the race.
You can follow reports and analysis here, which should give a good view into campaign progress and candidate viability – at least until the super PAC filings later this month.