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This is the first installment of a four-part series exploring the money billionaires poured into the 2020 election. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.
little more than a year ago Bernie Sanders called out Joe Biden during a Democratic debate in Los Angeles. Biden, he told the audience, had gotten checks from more than 40 billionaire donors. In the leadup to Election Day, as Democrats of all classes coalesced around Biden, that figure more than quintupled.
Biden’s campaign ended up receiving money from 230 billionaires or spouses of billionaires, according to a review of records filed with the Federal Election Commission. Far more billionaires supported the current president than his predecessor. Among Biden’s backers: household names like Steven Spielberg, Tyler Perry and Ralph Lauren, as well as Democratic stalwarts like Haim Saban, George Soros and Jim Simons, plus leaders of popular companies like Columbia Sportswear, Panda Express and Airbnb.
In all, about 25% of America’s richest tycoons donated to Biden’s campaign, either directly or through a spouse, while just 14% gave to Trump’s. That means that about 4 out of every 10 billionaires gave money to committees supporting one of the two candidates, according to the analysis.
Biden ended up with more donors—but fewer big spenders. Only 47% of Biden’s billionaire donors contributed $100,000 or more to one of his joint-fundraising committees, and the average contribution was about $170,000. By comparison, 63% of Trump’s put in at least $100,000, and the average donation was about $285,000.
Trump, who once bragged that he was so rich that he was “not using donors,” also had a two-year head start. He filed paperwork to launch his 2020 campaign on the day of his inauguration in 2017. Billionaires began writing checks within his first six months in office. By the time Biden launched his campaign in April 2019, a group of 48 billionaires and spouses of billionaires had already ponied up more than $5 million to re-elect Trump.
In Biden’s first few months on the trail, the former vice president picked up support from dozens of billionaires and their spouses. At first, none of it was big money, since federal law limits the size of donations supporters can give directly to campaigns. In the spring of 2020, when Biden became the presumptive nominee, he launched two joint-fundraising committees with the Democratic National Committee, allowing him to start soliciting six-figure contributions.
The money came pouring in. By the end of April 2020, he had collected contributions from over 100 billionaire donors, more than Trump. By the end of July, Biden had raised $20 million from billionaires and their spouses, while Trump had raised $27 million. Four months later, when the campaign ended, Trump finished with 133 billionaire backers who collectively gave him $37.8 million. Biden, meanwhile, had 230 donors who contributed $39.1 million.
Those sums only tell part of the story, though. Many of the biggest donors to the campaigns also funneled huge amounts into super-PACs supporting the two candidates. Super-PACs cannot coordinate with campaigns, which is why Forbes did not count those funds as part of the totals raised by Biden or Trump. But the groups, which are allowed to raise unlimited sums, can nonetheless plow money into television ads that support a candidate. Sheldon Adelson and his widow, Miriam, helped bankroll one of the largest pro-Trump super-PACs, donating $90 million, in addition to the $1.2 million they gave to one of Trump’s joint-fundraising committees. Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz handed over $820,600 to one of Biden’s joint-fundraising groups and poured $47 million more into a pro-Biden PAC. Mike Bloomberg never donated directly to Biden’s campaign, but he supplied more than $100 million to groups supporting the Democratic nominee.
Not every rich person spent big, though. Beer baron Dick Yuengling, who famously offered Eric Trump a tour of his plant back in 2016, gave just $500 to Trump in October. Margot Birmingham Perot, widow of former presidential hopeful H. Ross Perot Sr., gave a mere $1,000 to Biden. About 9% of Trump’s wealthiest supporters and one-quarter of Biden’s donated less than $5,000.
Other billionaires spent nothing at all. Forbes did not find donations to Trump or Biden from Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg.
Staff writer at Forbes. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter @mtindera07.