The primary season may be just under way, but Hillary Clinton has already been raising money for months like she's the nominee.
Clinton's move last year to lock in fundraising alliances with 33 state Democratic parties has already added $26.9 million to the mountain of hard money she has raised so far, a Bloomberg analysis of Federal Election Commission filings shows. Bernie Sanders, her competitor for the nomination, has inked one such deal, netting a total of $1,000.
The agreements, thanks to a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, make it possible for major donors to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard money to a candidacy, amounts far greater than the $2,700 limit on contributions directly to a campaign.
At least 24 donors have given $300,000 or more to the fundraising vehicle, known as the Hillary Victory Fund, including Haim and Cheryl Saban, George Soros and Daniel Abraham, longtime donors to both Bill and Hillary Clinton's political campaigns and the Clinton Foundation. The only other way to make such large contributions is through outside groups, such as super-PACs, which can take unlimited donations but can't coordinate with the candidate.
Under the agreements, the first $2,700 of a contribution goes straight to Clinton's campaign, the next $33,400 to the Democratic National Committee, and the remainder is split evenly across the 33 often cash-strapped state committees. Unlike super-PAC donations, the money can be spent to directly support her campaign on anything from get-out-the-vote efforts to TV ads.
Clinton and her campaign raise the money, spend some of it to raise more, and decide when to distribute the remainder. The only other way to make such large contributions is through outside groups, such as super-PACs, which can take unlimited donations but can't directly coordinate with the candidate.
"This is money the candidate controls," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks campaign finance. "This is money used to inspire support in the states."
Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for Clinton's campaign, said Clinton has "always made it a priority to strengthen the party." Clinton "believes in the importance of electing Democrats up and down the ballot to affect progressive change, that's why she has made it a priority during this campaign and throughout her career."
Having well-funded party committees around the country can be critical to electoral success. Martin P. Wattenberg, a University of California, Irvine, professor of political science who studies the role parties play in elections and governance, points to the work Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate. After the 2004 elections, Dean, as head of the DNC, rebuilt the Democratic Party's infrastructure at the state level as a means of activating its base. That played a key role in getting Barack Obama elected in 2008, Wattenberg said.
"Her priority has to be raising money for the presidential campaign," Wattenberg said. "If you're saying she's raising money for the party, I'm somewhat skeptical."
The Hillary Victory Fund has given $2.9 million to the 33 state committees, according to their filings with the FEC, including $124,000 to New Hampshire, home of the first in the nation primary.
Joint fundraising committees are nothing new: both Mitt Romney and Obama made use of them in 2012. But the size and timing of the donations for Clinton are. They were made possible by the 2014 Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down a provision that limited the aggregate amount one individual could give during an election cycle.
The move to set up the Hillary Victory Fund so early—it was started in September—could prove to be an advantage for the Democrats over their Republican counterparts. Individuals can give the maximum donation every year. That means the Sabans, Soros and others, whose donations came in 2015, can repeat their contributions this year. Meanwhile, no one in the crowded field of Republican candidates has set up a similar fund. And should Clinton lose the nomination, the Victory Fund money could still be used to help elect Sanders.
"There's more confidence on the part of Clinton that this money will be used to benefit her," said Krumholz. "It's a much wider field on the part of the Republicans."
Sanders narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses to Clinton this week, capturing 21 delegates to her 23. In New Hampshire, whose primary will be held Feb. 9, Sanders has consistently led in the polls, and is currently up by more than 18 points in the RealClear Politics average of voter surveys. His campaign has paid $180,800 to the state party, of which $100,000 went for access to its voter file.
In a campaign already awash in big money, Sanders' campaign has relied on donors giving $200 or less. Almost 77 percent of the nearly $40 million he has raised have come from small donors.
Clinton supporters, by contrast, have written seven figure checks to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC supporting her. The Sabans and Abraham each have given at least $1 million to the group, and Soros contributed $6 million.