GOP presidential hopefuls spend big ahead of second Republican primary debate

By Mat Schumer | OpenSecrets

Presidential primary candidates who spent the most as of second quarter Federal Election Commission filings are polling best ahead of the second Republican debate.

In order to participate, candidates had to meet polling and fundraising thresholds. While former President Donald Trump leads in the polls and is the top fundraiser, Trump has opted out of the debate to instead visit non-unionized auto workers in Michigan.

Trump is the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination with around 55% in polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight. His campaign has garnered more support than any other Republican candidate, with his campaign committee raising almost $32 million, of which it spent only about $12.7 million in the first half of 2023.

In addition to the money spent by Trump’s campaign, Save America PAC and the former president’s other allied groups are quickly burning through funds spending millions of dollars on legal consulting for the former president.

As for Trump’s campaign committee, its top vendor has been Campaign Inbox LLC, which was paid about $2.6 million through the first half of this year. The digital marketing agency was founded by former staffers of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and is focused on targeted email advertising for political campaigns. Representatives for Trump’s campaign and Campaign Inbox LLC declined to comment on their work together.

Another top recipient was Event Strategies, Inc., which received $1.8 million for event staging and audio visual services related to the rallies held across the country in support of the campaign. The campaign paid another $982,000 in travel expenses to Tag Air Inc., a company owned by the former president and which operates his private airplanes.

Todd Belt, director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, told OpenSecrets that Trump’s candidacy has altered the playing field in the 2024 Republican primary race.

“When one candidate has over 40% of any given primary’s likely Republican electorate, it creates a number of different incentives and disincentives,” Belt said. “[It] just really plays havoc with how each of these candidates that are also vying for the Republican nomination can think of ways to cobble together a winning electoral coalition.”

“The three main resources in the presidential primaries are your volunteers, your campaign contributors, and your endorsements,” Belt emphasized.

Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’s campaign places high importance on fundraising. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the campaign’s largest expenditure was over $900,000 paid to the Republican fundraising platform Winred Technical Services, LLC.

Desantis, who is the GOP runner-up, is currently polling at 13.8% according to FiveThirtyEight — his lowest position since the campaign began. This shift in performance has garnered criticism from Desantis’ most prominent supporters, who have signaled that they may pull support if the campaign doesn’t change its strategy.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign has the third highest total raised by a GOP presidential contender with around $19 million raised as of his second quarter FEC filing for 2023. Ramaswamy’s contributions to his own campaign amounted to about $16 million, mostly in the form of loans, which accounted for over 80% of his total funding in sharp contrast to Trump and Desantis.

Since his announcement in February 2021, Ramaswamy’s campaign has spent more than $10 million, over $2 million of which was to cover travel expenses supporting first-time candidate’s efforts to meet his potential constituents face-to-face.

While Ramaswamy’s largest campaign travel costs were paid out of pocket by Ramaswamy and reimbursed by his campaign committee, direct payments accounted for a significant portion of the committee’s spending. By the end of the second quarter of 2023, the campaign paid $216,000 for bus rentals and $63,000 for private airline flights.

Most of Ramaswamy’s campaign funds were directed toward earned media placement. Push Digital LLC, a South Carolina-based marketing agency, was Ramaswamy’s most significant recipient overall, receiving almost $2 million from his committee.

Washington, D.C.-based polling and survey firm Cygnal received another $1 million in funds from Ramaswamy, listed as expenditures for surveying and digital advertising. A recent polling update from Cygnal in August stated that Ramaswamy had overtaken DeSantis’ spot in second place of the race with 11% of the polls. The update included a disclaimer stating that Cygnal Vice President Brock McCleary is Ramaswamy’s official pollster.

Trailing behind Ramaswamy in aggregate polls is former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Her campaign committee has raised $10.5 million through the second quarter of this year, beating out North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum in the polls despite him outraising her by over $1 million.

“Nikki Haley took a very traditional approach to managing her campaign,” said Belt, “She announced early, [and] she’s got these legacy costs of having some of these consultants and other people working on her staff who’ve been there for a while and they don’t come cheap.”

A significant amount of Haley’s campaign funds are used to pay its employees. Payroll accounts for over $1.2 million dollars of the campaign’s spending — over a quarter of its total disbursements for 2023, which is the highest percentage spent on payroll of any major GOP campaign.

Haley’s campaign funds came largely from individual donors, and her campaign spent a substantial portion of what it raised on donation processing services like Anedot Incorporated, which received over $100,000 from the campaign. 

Haley’s travel expenses totaled over $200,000, paid chiefly to a company called Political Travel Partners LLC.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is currently polling at 4.6%, is a bit of an anomaly. Not only does his almost $1.2 million in funding make him the least financed major candidate in the GOP primary race, but he is also spending far less than other candidates. This remains true even when factoring in the $900,000 in outside spending by Committed to America PAC, a pro-Pence super PAC.

Burgum, on the other hand, has raised $11.8 million for his campaign fund, over $10 million of which he loaned himself, making him the fourth most funded candidate in the GOP race. His campaign has already burned through almost 70% of these funds and polling aggregates show that he is one of the lowest performing candidates at only 0.9%.

Recent FEC filings suggest Burgum’s campaign is placing a premium on marketing and advertising. His top recipient was DC-based political ad agency Advictory, with whom he worked on his gubernatorial campaign in 2016.

Most of the $5.5 million Burgum’s campaign paid to Advictory was delivered on the day he announced his bid for candidacy. The payment was classified as an allocation intended “to explore the feasibility of becoming a candidate” per FEC guidelines.

Burgum has also invested a great deal of funds into platform-specific marketing campaigns. His biggest recipient was  Red Spark Strategy LLC, a marketing firm specializing in email and text marketing that has been paid over $1 million by Burgum’s campaign. His campaign also allocated funds to companies such as email marketing company Conservative Connector and automated telephone service provider Victory Phones Live.

“Either he’s satisfied with the volunteers he has there or he’s trying to run a top-down type of campaign — and that just doesn’t work in Iowa,” said Belt, “Iowa is about the ground game. It’s about having the volunteers and the organizational structure to get people to the caucusing places in order to get your voice out.”

DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley, Pence, Burgum, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be participating in the second Republican presidential debate.

All Polling numbers are as of the date of publication, September 27, 2023.

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