LOS ANGELES — When President Trump touched down in California Tuesday, local Democrats seemed to greet his arrival largely as a platform for protest, with at least a hundred demonstrators lining the road near his first event as enormous Baby Trump and Trump Chicken balloons hovered overhead.
But the real reason Democrats should be paying attention to Trump’s current California swing isn’t because it’s a prime opportunity to register their displeasure with policies on immigration, emissions and forest management.
Instead, Democrats’ cause for concern should be the mountains of money Trump is raising here — and, more importantly, the right-wing energy that money represents.
California has long been an ATM for politicians of both parties. But even so, Trump’s haul this week is expected to be eye-popping. At Tuesday’s secretive Portola Valley luncheon, where ticket prices ranged from $1,000 to $100,000 and attendees were whisked to an undisclosed luncheon by shuttle, Trump raked in $3 million. Later that night, at a Beverly Hills soiree hosted by billionaire developer and longtime Trump supporter Geoffrey Palmer, the president added another $4 million to his tally. On Wednesday, he’s expected to bring the trip’s grand total to $15 million with a Los Angeles breakfast and San Diego luncheon.
That’s $15 million in a single state in less than 24 hours. By comparison, Kamala Harris raised $11.8 million nationwide during the entire second quarter of 2019.
Though he ran an unconventional and underfunded campaign in 2016, big money has become the new normal for Trump. Back in June, the president’s reelection campaign and two joint-fundraising committees raised nearly $25 million in a single day — an all-time record and more than any 2020 Democrat (other than Pete Buttigieg) has raised in an entire quarter. Then Trump and his various committees announced that they had amassed $108 million in the second quarter of 2019, surpassing even Barack Obama’s haul from the equivalent period of his 2012 reelection campaign. Overall, Team Trump has raised $204 million to date for 2020, which is more than every Democrat combined.
The usual fear about such huge sums of cash — which could eventually total as much as $2 billion, if the wildest GOP predictions are to be believed — is that Trump and his allies could spend it on data, organization and advertising while Democrats are busy tearing each other apart, leaving the party’s eventual nominee at a financial disadvantage next fall.
Perhaps. But fundraising isn’t everything. Remember, Hillary Clinton outspent Trump two-to-one in 2016. She still lost. That year, Trump benefited from an estimated $5 billion in free earned media coverage, and cable news isn’t likely to stop covering his transgressions anytime soon. In this Trumpian media climate, who’s airing the most ads in Michigan eventually stops mattering as much as it once did.
What doesn’t stop mattering, however, is energy and enthusiasm. And that’s what should worry Democrats about Trump’s trip to California.
In 2018, dispirited Trump voters stayed home; their man wasn’t on the ballot.
That’s unlikely to happen again in 2020. Sure, the president may be hobnobbing this week with wealthy California conservatives. But their readiness to shell out $1,000, or $100,000 mirrors what’s happening on the lower rungs of the Republican fundraising ladder — and that reflects real grassroots energy.
In the second quarter of 2019, for instance, Trump campaign officials said they received 725,000 individual donations online, with supporters giving an average of $48 — small-donor enthusiasm that was, as the New York Times said, “unprecedented in Republican politics, according to a committee official, who noted it was the first time the Republican National Committee attracted a larger share of donations under $200 than the Democratic National Committee.”
At the same time, 61 percent of the money raised directly by the Trump campaign has come from small donors — up from roughly a quarter of direct contributions back when Mitt Romney and John McCain were the party’s nominees.
In other words, Trump may still be broadly unpopular next November, and Democrats may still be fired up. But they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking their Republican counterparts won’t be just as eager to get out and vote.