Joe Biden is on a spending spree: a 60-second World Series television spot narrated by the actor Sam Elliott; a quarter-of-a-million-dollar Amtrak train lease for a six-city campaign tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania; an almost $4m TV advertising campaign in Texas.
The Democratic presidential candidate can afford such splurges thanks to the fundraising prowess of his campaign, which pulled in $493.8m over the past two months, breaking records and bringing his total haul for 2020 to $761.2m.
Now, with less than two weeks until election day, the Biden campaign has a final task: spending it all. “The goal is to be at zero by election day,” said a person close to the campaign.
Mr Biden’s historic fundraising total could give him an edge in the closing days of the race against President Donald Trump, who is running low on cash. But it does not guarantee success: Hillary Clinton also outraised Mr Trump significantly, but went on to lose in 2016.
Still, Mr Biden’s ability to raise money is remarkable, even by the standards of recent elections when candidates pulled in enormous sums. Although the campaign and the Democratic party have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy donors, the vast majority in recent weeks has come from grassroots contributors — many of whom donated to the campaign in August and September for the first time.
Moreover, the pandemic has handed the Biden campaign cost savings that were not available to previous candidates, who had to spend huge amounts on travel and accommodation as they toured the US.
For instance, Mr Biden’s campaign spent $4.8m on travel this year, with $3m going to private jet transport in August and September, significantly lower than the Clinton campaign, which spent $12.5m on travel in the first three quarters of 2016.
Mr Trump’s campaign has spent even less on travel, just $3.2m this year, although that does not include the considerable cost of reimbursing the federal government for the use of Air Force One, the presidential plane, for campaign stops.
Savings on expenses has freed up money for Mr Biden’s campaign, and it has spent the vast majority of it on one thing: advertisements.
Of the $592.9m the Biden campaign has spent this year, almost 84 per cent has gone to paid advertising, according to an FT analysis of Federal Election Commission data. Just 0.6 per cent has gone to travel and 0.3 per cent has gone to event production.
Mr Biden’s record-smashing numbers have surprised fundraisers from both parties, many of whom wonder if it can be recreated four years from now.
One Democratic fundraiser expressed “pity” for the next Democratic presidential candidate trying to fundraise without Mr Trump as their general election opponent.
“The guy’s got more money than God,” a Trump fundraiser said of Mr Biden.
Biden campaign officials said the cash infusion had allowed them to micro-target specific groups of voters in a way that would not have been possible without so much money. For instance, they have bought media ads targeting Puerto Rican voters in Florida’s I-4 corridor and the Mexican-American community in Yuma, Arizona.
Mr Biden and the Democrats outraised Mr Trump and the Republicans by more than $285m in August and September, and officials said this had allowed them to run ads “unchecked” by their opponents in some media markets in recent weeks.
While the Trump campaign and its shared committees with the Republican National Committee have raised $1.5bn since 2019, Mr Trump burnt through much of that money in the early stages of the race when voters were not paying as much attention. In February he spent $11m on an ad that aired during the Super Bowl. The decision to front-load so much spending has left his campaign with a cash crunch in the final stretch.
Mr Trump’s campaign began this month with just $63.1m cash-on-hand, an almost 50 per cent drop from the $121.1m it had going into September. Mr Biden’s campaign had almost three times as much — $177.3m — having ended August with $180.7m in the bank.
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The money has also allowed the Biden campaign to spend in Republican-leaning reach states such as Texas. Even Mr Biden’s supporters admit he has little chance of carrying Texas, but spending there could help Democrats in the state more broadly while also forcing Mr Trump to play defence.
“Even Texas is in the margin of error,” said a top Democratic donor, noting that the campaign’s multimillion-dollar ad buys in Republican-leaning states “could potentially help a couple of congressional and Senate races”.
The donor added: “Or maybe you wake up [on election day] and say: ‘Holy shit, I didn’t know we could win Iowa.’”
Overall, the Biden campaign is on the air in 17 battleground states — even though just half-a-dozen states are seen as close contests. In August the campaign announced it would be spending at least $280m on TV and digital ads through the autumn — a figure that has now grown to more than $300m and is expected to increase even further.
“If we didn’t have the resources we had now, we’d be having to make [some] hard choices right now,” said one Biden campaign official.
After weeks of slashing its ad budget, the Trump campaign is finally responding to Mr Biden’s advertising onslaught. This week the Trump campaign and the RNC announced they would spend a combined $55m on paid advertising in the final two weeks of the race — a significant jump from September.
The additional paid advertising will help the campaign make an “aggressive play for the black vote and Hispanic vote” and target voters in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Michigan, Bill Stepien, Mr Trump’s campaign manager, said on a call with reporters this week.
“We have more than sufficient air cover, almost three times as much as 2016,” Mr Stepien added.
Mr Stepien also argued that the Trump campaign was outspending Biden in other areas that could give it an edge on election day, such as data targeting and campaign field staff. In August the campaign paid $40,000 to Stampede America, a consulting firm tasked with recruiting door-to-door canvassers in Florida.
In contrast, for much of the race, the Biden campaign has foregone a traditional field campaign, including in-person field offices and voter door-knocking, citing the health risks of such activities during a pandemic.
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Mr Trump has also spent more overall on Facebook ads than Mr Biden, though the Democrat has caught up in recent weeks.
Although the Biden campaign is planning to burn through as much of its cash as possible before election day, it is keeping some money back for legal fights in case the result is contested.
“There are going to be some unprecedented amounts of money that are going to be needed to spend on things like legal challenges,” said Michael Kempner, a Democratic fundraiser.
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