Donors big and small alike are pulling out their wallets in Iowa to support their candidates for the 2016 presidential election, but their contributions amount to little more than a drop in the bucket.
“When candidates come to Iowa, fundraising is not their primary purpose. It’s kind of gravy, if you will,” said Donna Hoffman, who heads the political science department at the University of Northern Iowa.
The Republican Party’s presidential candidates’ principal campaigns raised $132,581 in Iowa from January through June, the last period reported by the Federal Election Commission. Democratic presidential candidates raised $69,782.
Those dollars raised in Iowa account for less than 1 percent of the candidates’ national totals in the last campaign reporting period. There is, however, a currency in the heartland far more valuable than federally minted greenbacks that candidates are vying for.
“This isn’t where the big bucks are, this is where the caucus goers are,” Hoffman said. “That’s their primary focus.”
None of which is to say that fundraising plays an inconsequential role in Iowa. Depending on the strategy a candidate employs, wooing the state’s donors can help build a network of supportive voters ahead of the caucus.
Numbers available on the Federal Election Commission’s website offer a glimpse into who in Iowa is contributing to which candidate, and how those candidates are using that support in the hopes of translating it all into votes.
The FEC data IowaWatch used in this report includes all financial records filed by candidates and their affiliated committees between Jan. 1 and June 30 this year. The next FEC filing deadline is Oct. 15, and will include all financial records from July 1 to Sept. 30.
“The problem on the Republican side is there are so many of them,” Arthur Sanders, a professor of politics at Drake University, said. “There are a lot of people, they all need money, and they all need visibility.”
Jeb Bush’s has raised the most in Iowa so far. His principal campaign only raised $21,150 from January through June, but his super PAC — Right to Rise USA — raised $203,750 in the same time period, putting him head and shoulders over the rest of the GOP pack.
Though he trails Bush when it comes to financial contributions, Ben Carson stands out nonetheless. Carson raised the second highest amount in Iowa, with his principal campaign pulling in $43,632. Two of his Super PACs — National Draft Ben Carson for President and The 2016 Committee — netted an additional $50,820.
Bush may have beaten Carson at the bank, but in the eyes of Iowa’s voters it’s another story. The retired neurosurgeon from Detroit continues to poll second in approval only to Donald Trump in the latest NBC News/WSJ/Marist poll, trailing among potential GOP caucus-goers, 24 percent to 19 percent in Iowa. The poll, taken the last week of September, had a 4.7 percentage point margin of error.
Carson’s fundraising strategy is a departure from what other candidates are doing. Where Bush and others are relying on a few big donors, Carson has relied on lots of small ones.
Altogether, Bush’s principal campaign and his Right to Rise super PAC received two dozen individual contributions from Iowa the first six months of this year. Most of the donors to his campaign gave $2,700, the maximum amount the FEC allows an individual to give to a candidate during an election.
Since super PACs don’t have to follow those rules, more than half of the donors to Right to Rise gave $25,000 individually.
Carson’s principal campaign and his two super PACs received a total of 985 contributions from over 700 Iowa donors between January and the end of June. Most only donated $100 or less, and a significant number donated as little as five or ten dollars.
No 2016 presidential candidate — neither Republican nor Democrat — has come close to the sheer volume of donations that Carson has amassed in Iowa so far.
This, Hoffman said, is a viable strategy for creating a grassroots network of supporters: Get lots of small donors and keep going back for more.
“This is something that Obama really tried to do in 2008 to catapult his campaign,” Hoffman said. “You can be Ben Carson or Rick Santorum or some of the other people who aren’t raising lots of money, visit the state and still make a splash by just talking to people and getting them to commit to you, maybe even with just five dollars.”
The actual money, Hoffman said, isn’t nearly as valuable as what the campaign learns about the donors.
“That five dollar or ten dollar commitment is information the campaign has on that voter,” Hoffman said. “They’re in the database, which means you can potentially move them to a body that goes to the caucus. And that’s really important in this stage.”
Sanders, of Drake University, said having the most money is never the only thing that matters. “What a candidate can do is try to use the fact that they have a lot of donors in Iowa as evidence of support in the state,” he said.
Of course having the most money doesn’t hurt. Where Carson is going after lots of nickels and dimes, Bush is aiming for the big bucks in Iowa.
One of Bush’s top contributors in Iowa is billionaire Dennis Albaugh, considered to be one of the wealthiest men in the state. This June, Albaugh gave $25,000 to Right to Rise USA, which has already papered Iowa and New Hampshire with more than 230,000 fliers supporting Bush’s candidacy.
“These days the biggest donors don’t give to the campaigns,” Sanders said. “They give to the super PACs.”
Albaugh also held a fundraising event for Bush at his estate in Ankeny this August, according to the Des Moines Register.
The founder of a chemical pesticide company, Albaugh has been pouring money into politics since the early 2000s, according to FEC records. Over the last 11 years, he has donated more than $235,000 to various conservative candidates and committees. He declined to offer comment for this story.
Bush’s super PACs also have received $25,000 donations from former Republican U.S Senate candidate Mark Jacobs, former Wells Fargo executive Mark C. Oman, Mittera Group President Jon Troen, and business executives John and Janis Ruan of Des Moines, who also contributed through the Ruan Center Corporation and Ruan Inc.
But Cary Covington, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Iowa, said having a super PAC doesn’t guarantee an effective campaign. “You need volunteers, you need organization in places like Iowa.” Covington said.
Covington said devoting face time and establishing a physical presence on the ground in Iowa is a more effective way for candidates to win delegates over as they seek nomination.
Sanders said that is part of the reason Carson is performing so well in Iowa.
“He has spent a lot of time here,” Sanders said. “ And he seems to be very good at that one-on-one retail politicking.”
Asked which is more important in Iowa, raising money or winning votes in the caucus, Jerry Crawford didn’t hesitate.
“No contest,” Crawford said. “Winning is far more important.”
A renowned Democratic strategist and former co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Crawford is a Des Moines based attorney who has returned to Clinton’s campaign to help coordinate her political machine in Iowa for her 2016 run.
FEC data puts Clinton at the head of the Democratic pack when it comes to fundraising in Iowa. She received $51,888 from Iowa between January and the end of June, and a single $500 donation to Ready PAC, a hybrid PAC that supports her.
Bernie Sanders is the runner up with $16,394 raised, with Martin O’Malley trailing at $1,500. Neither Lincoln Chafee nor Jim Webb have disclosed funds raised or spent in Iowa so far.
Clinton’s campaign has no expectation of breaking even in Iowa, nor does any campaign for that matter. Clinton spent $446,115 in Iowa between January and the end of June, translating to roughly eight and half dollars spent for every dollar raised from an Iowa donor.
This is typical of how political money flows during a presidential election.
“There’s always a disproportionate amount of spending in Iowa and New Hampshire, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case this time,” Arthur Sanders said.
Hoffman said it’s common for candidates to go to states with plenty of wealthy donors in places like California or Florida to raise money only to turn around and spend it in Iowa. “A dollar-to-dollar comparison does not capture the importance of the state of Iowa at this stage in the game,” she said.
Still, Crawford is confident Clinton will see plenty of support from Iowa, both in the form of money and voters. He already has given $2,700 to his boss’ campaign, and most of Clinton’s largest donations from within the state come from other established Democratic power players.
William Knapp, chairman of Knapp Properties, a commercial and residential real-estate company based out of Des Moines, topped the list of Iowa’s 10 leading political donors from 2012 through 2014 when he gave more than $370,000 mostly to various Democratic candidates and committees. He and his wife Susan each contributed $2,700 to Clinton’s campaign this spring. They were unavailable for comment.
Former Iowa Democratic gubernatorial candidates Bonnie Campbell and Roxanne Conlin both gave $2,700 to Clinton as well.
Both Clinton and Sanders also are going after smaller donors, like Carson on the Republican side is doing. Clinton’s Iowa fundraising operation has proved more effective than Sanders’ in terms of money raised so far, but everything could change in this next FEC filing period.
Arthur Sanders said he expects more money to begin pouring out of Iowa as the wealthier citizens of the state decide which candidates to throw their support behind.
IowaWatch assistant editor/reporter/digital analyst Lauren Mills contributed data analysis to this story. Photos for this story were provided by student journalists working with IowaWatch in a caucus reporting project. View their work at Caucus.IowaWatch.org.
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