By: Karl Evers-Hillstrom, Center for Responsive Politics

Political fundraising took an intense dip as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the nation in mid-March and early April, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of campaign contributions.

The pandemic forced the leading presidential candidates to cancel in-person fundraisers that would have netted their campaigns millions. High-profile congressional candidates paused their fundraising activities to assist relief efforts. And the virus’ economic damage that forced 40 million to file for unemployment may have prompted potential donors to save their money. 

The 2020 election is still on track to be the most expensive ever, easily eclipsing the 2016 contest. But as COVID-19 cases neared their peak in April, individual donations to the six major political party committees were actually lower than they were at the same point in the 2016 cycle. 

These figures make for a relatively even comparison as political parties file their fundraising figures every month and aren’t subject to volatile swings. Although overall April donations this year were higher overall than in 2016, the difference is much smaller than in the previous months. 

Congressional candidates only file their numbers every three months, meaning complete data for all political committees is only available through March. Still, OpenSecrets’ data shows that 2020 individual contributions dropped precipitously starting in mid-March.

President Donald Trump and his presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden appeared to see weaker fundraising during the pandemic’s peak. Individual donations to the top presidential contenders and the leading political parties were lower than in 2016 during parts of early April, OpenSecrets found. Their fundraising picked up toward the end of the month. 

Trump cancelled big-dollar fundraisers in March as his administration hurried to address the pandemic that had already grown out of control. Those included a fundraiser with Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson where attendees were asked to give $100,000 or more. 

Trump plans to host an in-person fundraiser in Dallas on Thursday and another at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club on Saturday. Those events will be smaller than usual, but Trump’s swift return to in-person fundraisers indicates he’s eager to once again collect big checks to fund his reelection bid. Attendees are required to give six figures to Trump’s joint fundraising committee to attend, with the Dallas fundraiser charging $580,600 per couple to get in. 

Trump Victory, Trump’s joint fundraising committee that facilitates in-person fundraisers, brought in $37 million to Trump’s campaign and $100 million to the Republican National Committee through the end of April. The Trump campaign has lagged without access to those funds. Trump has a massive cash lead over Biden, but he was actually outraised by the former vice president in April. 

Unlike Trump, Biden has hosted numerous virtual fundraisers that brought in big money from wealthy donors. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), billionaire Tom Steyer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have all hosted virtual fundraisers with Biden. Musicians Sheryl Crow and Jimmy Buffett, along with several others, performed live during a virtual Biden fundraiser in late May. Barbra Streisand and John Legend will headline a virtual fundraiser for Biden on June 11. 

These fundraisers are lucrative for the Biden campaign’s bottom line, and particularly for the cash starved Democratic National Committee that will benefit most from six-figure donations. Just 25 donors, most of them from Silicon Valley, gave $4 million to Biden’s joint fundraising committee during a virtual fundraiser hosted last week. 

Big-dollar donors are just one part of the fundraising puzzle. And their absence isn’t the only reason donations fell off. Several political candidates asked their supporters to donate to local charities instead of their campaigns in late March. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put his presidential campaign on hold to raise millions for COVID-19 relief. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) raised over $212,000 for the Salvation Army of Arizona to assist with coronavirus aid efforts. 

Candidates are relying more than ever on donors giving small amounts online. The Biden campaign announced last week that it saw a surge of online donations in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and amid protests over policing practices. The Biden campaign attracted those donors on social media, spending a single-day record $1.6 million on Facebook ads on Thursday of last week alone. 

Eager to regain traction as he falls behind Biden in the polls, Trump plans to host campaign rallies in the next two weeks, Politico reported Monday. While Trump’s advisers are reportedly working out the details, those events could conflict with the Trump administration’s own guidelines that warn against large gatherings. 

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