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Here’s how Jeb Bush ran out of cash

Rick Newman
·Senior Columnist
Here’s how Jeb Bush ran out of cash

His campaign started out stuffed with money.

By last July, Jeb Bush had raised $103 million for his super PAC, Right to Rise, an astonishing sum that seemed to foretell the most lavishly funded campaign in American history. No super PAC had ever raised so much cash so early in an election cycle. In fact, Right to Rise alone outraised all the super PACs combined at the same stage in the 2012 elections.

Now, after primary elections in just three states, Bush is out. He finished sixth in the Iowa caucus, fourth in the New Hampshire primary, and now, fourth in the South Carolina primary. It has become a given in modern American politics that money buys results, but Bush's rapid flameout suggests a more nuanced reality: Money can buy an edge, but successful candidates still need broad-based support and lots of smaller donors.

Bush‘s strategy from the beginning was to lure wealthy donors able to write six- and seven-figure checks to his super PAC. But his campaign itself was never well-funded, and that turned out to be a critical gap. Super PACs, which can accept unlimited amounts of money, can pay for ads and other types of advocacy—either for the favored candidate or against rivals—but they’re not allowed to cover basic campaign expenses such as salaries for staff, travel costs, event fees and anything else done by the campaign proper. That's what the presidential campaign committee is for, and that's limited to maximum donations of $2,700 per person for the primary elections, and another $2,700 for the general election. So even with a gargantuan super PAC, it's still crucial to have a lot of donors funding the traditional campaign.

Here are fundraising totals for the major candidates, which clearly show Bush’s disadvantage. These are for the full year of 2015, the latest comprehensive figures available:

Source: Federal Election Commission
Source: Federal Election Commission

While Bush was tied with Democrat Hillary Clinton for the most money raised through a campaign committee and a super PAC combined, he ranked sixth in money raised by the campaign alone. Given that billionaire Donald Trump is funding his own campaign and has pledged to spend at least $100 million if needed, Bush effectively ranked seventh in campaign funding. Except for John Kasich, all of the candidates with less money have now dropped out.

Bush also burned through money faster than some of the other candidates, and spent more overall, as this table shows:

Source: Federal Election Commission. Note: Burn rates higher than 100% for Trump and Kasich indicate they have borrowed to cover spending; Trump, who's self-funding his campaign, essentially borrows from himself.
Source: Federal Election Commission. Note: Burn rates higher than 100% for Trump and Kasich indicate they have borrowed to cover spending; Trump, who's self-funding his campaign, essentially borrows from himself.

Had Bush performed well in either Iowa or New Hampshire, his fundraising may have picked up in 2016. Instead, the opposite happened. Bush's poor showing strengthened Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and to a lesser extent Marco Rubio and John Kasich, all of them gaining momentum at Bush's expense. Rubio, who also has a high burn rate, is positioned to benefit from Bush's departure, since he may get many of the "establishment" donors Bush supposedly had locked up. Meanwhile, Ben Carson's days seem numbered, since he hasn't done well anywhere in actual voting.

For a better fundraising model, compare Bush's strategy with that of Bernie Sanders, who foreswore coordination with a super PAC at the beginning of his campaign. Sanders has essentially zero Big Money backing, yet his fundraising surged after he won the New Hampshire primary earlier this month. Though he lost the Nevada caucus to rival Hillary Clinton, Sanders did much better than expected a couple of weeks ago, and his fundraising momentum should keep him in the race at least for the next few weeks.

At the end of 2015, Sanders’ campaign had raked in $54 million in donations below $200, a sign of how broad his appeal had become. Bush raised just $1.6 million in such small donations, indicating that he gained little traction among rank-and-file voters and may not have reached out to them  aggressively. The irony for Bush is that he had more rich donors than anybody, but too few mainstream backers. The rich can't but democracy just yet.

Sanders has added at least $25 million more to his fundraising total in 2016. The Bush campaign, by contrast, never said how much it raised. Now we know--it wasn't enough.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.