Way back in 2016, Political Action Committees were taken for granted. They existed, and particularly in Super PAC form (where there’s no contribution cap) were seen as crucial. The two major innovations of the 2000s were individual internet contributions and increasingly giant Super PACs.
With modest individual donation limits ($2800 for the primary to a single candidate, and another $2800 for the general election), a candidate either needs to get a few people to give a ton to Super PACs, or have hundreds of thousands of individual donors.
Bundlers are useful too. These are connected individuals who can pull together many fairly wealthy people who will give the individual maximum. But that only gets you so far. At least one of the other two is needed to have a steady flow of income that will last from the pre-primary voting season, through the primaries, and then into a general election.
Barack Obama was a funding triple threat. He did fantastically well with bundlers. He wasn’t allergic to PAC money, and he inspired individual small donors. Part of his 2008 story was flattening Hillary Clinton on the financial side in the primary, before out-resourcing John McCain in the fall.
Not all candidates can inspire individual contributors. Bernie Sanders does. Elizabeth Warren too. Pete Buttigieg has more than half a million individual contributors, a huge number for someone who was basically unknown 8 months ago. Joe Biden does not. Partly this is just him. Biden has never excelled at fundraising. Partly it’s his audience.
Older Americans vote at a very high rate. They don’t contribute online the same way. His audience is a little less affluent, a bit less educated. There isn’t the thrill of discovery like with Mayor Pete. It’s not like someone can give Joe 80 bucks and brag to their friends they were there first.
When the whole Ukraine thing blew up several weeks ago, many expected Biden to go all in on engaging directly with Trump and attempting to already turn this into a general election battle. He didn’t. Maybe it was not wanting to impact his son. Maybe it’s just a continuation of a strategy where the candidate and campaign only engage with other candidates and the media when they absolutely have to.
Regardless, the decision didn’t hurt them in polls, but didn’t help with fundraising. A real brawl with President Trump could have triggered the type of individual donor enthusiasm Biden has lacked. If this were 2016, UncleJoePAC would have begun raising money months before Biden announced his candidacy. Nobody would have given it a thought.
But PAC money is now persona non grata with most Democratic presidential candidates. Sanders both raised a pile of money without them, and moved the expectation to skipping them. When Warren got on board with this, it made it untenable for most candidates to consider the option. Even Biden disavowed any attempt to create one on his behalf.
Sanders and Warren are also anti-bundler. Neither are attending big dollar fundraisers. It gives them the benefit of skipping time consuming travel that would otherwise take them away from regular voter events in places like Iowa. This is a key strengthening element for both campaigns.
Team Biden is worried about having him spend too much of the next couple months in front of rich people instead of voters. He also isn’t winning over said rich people yet. Some are waiting, some are donating to competitors. Some have already made their maximum contribution to him.
If he can’t inspire individuals, and has limitations in the bundling world, that just leaves the PAC. Biden ended the last quarter with $9 million in the bank. That’s well less than his top three competitors, all of whom have huge advantages on him getting new revenue going forward. None of them are yet facing the stream of oppo advertising from the Trump campaign that Biden is.
You can argue whether there were ways he could have avoided putting himself in this position. You can argue that as long as he was willing to do this if needed, Biden should have started encouraging big PAC money months ago. What’s done is done. He has zero choice now. Unilateral disarmament never works for campaigns.
What’s the likely impact?
Warren, among others, has already directly criticized Biden for taking this step. It will likely flare up in future debates. Warren in particular may link this to his history of supporting the many banking and credit card interests in Delaware. Meh. He’s not running as a crusader.
I’m betting almost all voters who would really care about this are already supporting a different candidate. Ideally, Biden won’t sound super defensive about this when asked about it, but if he does, it will be the same as how he’s sounded about everything else, and his polls are almost identical to six months ago, so, whatever.
Normally, PAC money is inefficient. Jeb Bush in 2016 is a good example of this. Because there are strict limits on coordinating with the official campaign, ads are regularly not that well targeted. Sometimes they go too far, sometimes not far enough. The very best and brightest ad minds are normally formally attached to a campaign, so PAC ads are usually not that innovative.
Biden’s campaign wasn’t a threat to put great ads together. Whether it’s a lack of political talent, insularity, or the candidate himself wanting to approve anything interesting, they just don’t do anything noteworthy. The campaign itself does much the same sort of work that a PAC would.
His ads aren’t so much to convince voters to come over to his side. Until the field narrows much further, Biden mostly needs to keep those who are already choosing him in polls. Being able to afford more ad drops, be they on TV or Facebook, has the benefit of showing those existing supporters that he’s fighting and engaged.
It gives them some ammunition when their family, friends and acquaintances question why they’re still with him. This needed to happen. If it took a scary bank balance and frightening future schedule to get Biden to opt in, it was worth it. This is a clear plus for him going forward.