July 23, 2024

Democratic donors warn of campaign funds ‘drying up’ as Joe Biden holds on

Democratic donors have warned that funding for the November election effort is “drying up” because of Joe Biden’s refusal to step aside, threatening to undermine the party’s effort to defeat Donald Trump.

Donors have become a crucial constituency in the fight over Biden’s future, with some pushing aggressively for him to withdraw even as the party’s lawmakers on Capitol Hill waver over his candidacy.

Their increasing willingness to walk away from the campaign, mentioned in interviews with donors from Wall Street to Hollywood, poses a new existential risk to Biden’s re-election if he stays in a White House race expected to be the most expensive in US history.

“As of today, it would be very difficult to raise major donor money for the president,” said one New York-based Democratic donor. “It is so quickly unravelling that it is going to be extraordinarily difficult for him to stay in the race.”

Another donor involved in the party for decades said the money was “in the process of drying up”. The donor added: “Nine to one when I talk to other donors, they’re not planning on contributing . . . because they’re concerned about losing.”

Biden tried to allay donors’ concerns in recent days, including participating in a conference call led by campaign chair Jennifer O’Malley Dillon on Monday, where he told contributors: “Thanks for sticking with me.”

But much of the White House’s political operation over the past week has focused on wavering Democratic officeholders, particularly on Capitol Hill — although Biden also held calls with governors and mayors in a bid to reassure them.

That effort has bought Biden some breathing room, as critical Democrats, including the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus, offered support, while no member of the official party leadership explicitly called on him to step aside.

But donors have been less constrained, with several high-profile Biden supporters — including Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, hotel mogul Stewart Bainum Jr and actor George Clooney — explicitly citing the president’s mental acuity in their calls for him to drop out.

One Democratic fundraiser said one longtime donor refused to even hear a pitch for more money.

“It’s really hard to raise any money whatsoever,” said the fundraiser. “Since the debate, [donors] went from not being enthusiastic to now just being angry.”

The Biden campaign has said the president’s poor debate performance against Trump late last month has not hurt fundraising, pointing to $38mn raised soon after the event, when it also recorded its best day of grassroots donations.

Roger Hochschild, the former Discover chief and a top Biden donor, wrote in an email on Wednesday that after an “initial wave of concerns”, Democrats were “coalescing” around their presumptive presidential nominee.

Another big Biden donor, Peter Lowy, the former chief executive of the Westfield Group and investor in the Leeds United football club, donated the maximum amount — $929,600 — to the president’s joint fundraising group on Monday.

“I am a businessman and I base my decisions on results,” said Lowy, who pointed to the US’s strong economy under Biden as one of his reasons for supporting him.

Campaign fundraising does not guarantee US political success — Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite being outspent — but it is crucial to multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and ground operations in the swing states.

The Biden campaign now faces the prospect financing election battles in several states that were once thought to be safely in his camp.

In the 2020 race, Biden became the first candidate in US history to raise more than $1bn, and defeated Trump, who raised $774mn, according to the non-partisan tracker OpenSecrets. Including outside groups, the 2020 election cost more than $2.7bn.

Trump’s campaign has had its own money problems, spending about a quarter of its donations, or more than $76mn, on legal fees from January 2023 to April 2024. But since sweeping the table in the Republican primaries, the former president’s fundraising has caught up to Biden’s.

Clooney’s call for Biden to drop out could spark others to take a similar stance. The actor headlined a $28mn fundraiser in Hollywood last month.

Several Wall Street donors are now also prepared to push harder for Biden’s withdrawal — but said they were frustrated with his intransigence.

“Never thought I would say this, but hoping for a big gaffe,” said a New York Democratic supporter, adding that it would force Democratic elders, including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer or South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, “to deliver ‘the time is up’ speech”.

Some donors have warned that unless Biden withdraws, the party would risk losing both chambers of Congress as well as the White House.

A donor close to Schumer said party insiders had communicated their warnings to Biden, saying his determination to hold on could still trigger party-wide revolt. 

“The reason you haven’t seen more lawmakers going public is that they want to give Biden the space to reach the right decision on his own,” said the donor close to Schumer. “That will change if Biden stays but I’m told by very senior people that [Biden] doesn’t have his head in the sand.”

The donor gloom would lift if Biden dropped out, said Whitney Tilson, a former fund manager and big Democratic donor.

“I think it’d be the most exciting thing to happen in American political history . . . It would just suck the air out of the room for Trump,” Tilson said. “It’ll draw attention and energy from donors who are all sitting there not giving to anybody.”

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