The presidential contest for California cash, in 6 data visualizations
Who raised the most from California's donor class? Who relies the most on the Golden State's largesse? We've got graphics for that.
You might not guess it given the president’s subterranean approval numbers among California voters, the more than 40 mean tweets he’s issued about the state or his regular spats with Gov. Gavin Newsom. But the latest raft of numbers from the Federal Elections Commission do not lie: The top beneficiary of California-based campaign contributions in 2019 is none other than President Donald Trump.
See for yourself.
Last year Trump’s reelection campaign took in almost $12.2 million in itemized contributions from California donors, more than any other candidate.
Before you revise your understanding of California politics, two caveats.
All the Democratic contenders take together actually leave Trump in the dust — they’ve collected 83% of California’s reported donors. Remember, the president isn’t facing any significant challengers from within his own party, whereas the Democratic field is still split 11 ways.
Second, Under federal election law, campaigns only have to “itemize” contributions if a particular donor has given more than $200 over the course of a year. Donations below that threshold aren’t reported with name, address, and homestate attached.
Some campaigns are more reliant on these “small dollar” donors than others. Of all the money that Americans gave to the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, 63% was unitemized. It’s impossible to tell how much of that came from California.
What the new campaign finance data can tell us is where the state’s “donor class” — the most well-heeled and deeply committed contributors — are parking their money.
And that can be instructive.
Breaking California’s largesse into monthly increments tells the story of each political campaign.
See the meteoric rise and then slow and steady collapse of Sen. Kamala Harris. Or check out the Pete Buttigieg bump and the surprise breakout by Andrew Yang. Joe Biden’s steady, if middling, performance in most California polls also registered in the financial figures. And from a small share of total contributions, you can watch Sanders’ star ascend in the final months of the year.
Some campaigns are more dependent on California than others.
Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund manager who became a philanthropist and Democratic super-donor, pulled half of his itemized donations from the state he’s called home for decades. That isn’t much of a surprise given the many political connections (and political careers) he’s built here.
But this number comes with a caveat too: Only 1.5% of Steyer’s campaign money comes from donors. The rest — a little over $202 million for his entire national operation — comes from Steyer himself.
That’s compared to the other billionaire in the race. If you’re wondering why Michael Bloomberg is not listed in any of these graphics, it’s because he isn’t accepting donations from anyone other than Michael Bloomberg. Through the end of 2019, that added up to $200 million. By all accounts he’s spent a lot more since then.
Tracking the campaign finance haul says as much about the state’s economic and political geography as it does about the trajectory of any one campaign.
The ten zip codes that gave the most to presidential candidates in 2019 are, no surprise, among the toniest in the state. And — also, no surprise — their political preferences skew away from the candidates advocating a wealth tax and the abolition of private health insurance, and toward the more moderate Buttigieg and Biden.
But candidates have gathered a wide array of donors from all across California. And their varied preferences from one zip code to the next offer an indication of the state’s ideological diversity.
In the map below, each zip code is shaded based on the candidate who earned the most in that small segment of the state. But the height of the zip code represents how much money that candidate raised. (The map allows you to zoom, tilt, spin and explore the towers and valleys of California campaign cash — for Mac users, for instance, use your Command and Control keys.)
Of 2,433 zip codes in California, Trump has raised more than any other candidate in 1,009. That isn’t necessarily a measure of the president’s financial might. With a few exceptions in San Diego and Orange counties, the president’s financial support is geographically broad, but not especially towering in any one area.
Likewise in the Democratic camp, Sanders has the most dispersed financial support. The Vermont senator earned more than any other candidate in 399 zip codes — though in none did he crack six-digits in total.
In contrast, candidates such as Buttigieg and Harris (prior to her decision to drop out in December) were able to raise millions from a smaller number of cities and neighborhoods — mostly in and around Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
While raising money offers one (imperfect) measure of a campaign’s public support and future viability, political campaigns are also in the business of spending money.
And this is how they did that in 2019:
If you’ve spent any time in front of a television lately, it might not surprise you to see Tom Steyer is leading in California spending. The fact that his family office is also based in San Francisco means that much of the billionaire candidate’s salary expenditure has California as a destination.
Bloomberg, who announced his candidacy in late November, had already vaulted to fourth place in total annual spending in California by the end of the year.
But despite the large numbers, neither Steyer’s nor Bloomberg’s total in California represent a particularly large share of their total spending. That would be 9.5% and 3.5% respectively.
Instead, the candidates who are prioritizing the largest share of their campaign war chests on the nation’s largest delegate prize are Tulsi Gabbard (33%), Pete Buttigieg (21%) and Andrew Yang (20%).
Here’s a closer look at the California donors who are making hundreds of small donations to presidential candidates — sometimes daily.