Running for president costs millions of dollars in staff salaries, even more in advertising fees and tons in travel — but sometimes, what a campaign really needs to get through a day is five-figures worth of paella.
That’s among the eye-catching expenses hidden in plain sight among thousands of lines of campaign charges contained in the latest round of FEC disclosures. There were a few through-lines across the Democratic campaigns from April through June: Digital advertising is at or near the top of most expense lists, as candidates try to build massive donor lists to qualify for debates and fund a long primary campaign. Staff salaries, too, are a major cost — for those who can afford it, as some smaller campaigns make the crucial choice to prioritize advertising in order to make the debates.
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But some expenditures are singular, from consulting payments to a sitcom-inspired fundraising firm to the campaign event in Los Angeles fueled by a company called “Got Paella.” And some, like the digital advertising expenses, illustrate broad stories about the state of the campaign and the Democratic Party, like the top Democratic law firm working for at least seven different 2020 presidential candidates.
Here are the most revealing, outlandish or just weird ways Democratic presidential campaigns spent money between the start of April and the end of June:
Joe Biden: $102,353 for the launch ad that never was
Biden paid $102,352.90 on May 16 to the firm owned by Mark Putnam, a famed Democratic ad man who worked for former President Barack Obama and produced viral campaign spots for congressional candidates including Amy McGrath and Jason Kander. Putnam’s firm shot footage for a launch ad before Biden jumped into the race in April — except it didn’t ever run. Instead, Biden advisers chose to go with a different video. Putnam left Biden’s campaign in June.
Kirsten Gillibrand: $350,000 on a digital firm that the campaign ditched
Gillibrand’s campaign spent $346,681.03 in the second quarter on Anne Lewis Strategies, a consulting firm that directed the campaign’s online ads and had played a central role as Gillibrand became one of the party’s top online fundraisers in 2017.
But by mid-spring of this year, Gillibrand cut the firm loose, as she struggled to raise money from individual donors online. Now, the campaign has brought its digital advertising and fundraising in-house, which presidential campaigns traditionally haven’t done in the past. Throughout the second quarter, Gillibrand’s campaign dropped $842,192.14 on ads paid directly to Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Ten different campaigns: $4.1 million in direct payments to Facebook for ads
It’s not just the Gillibrand campaign: A number of other Democrats are paying less and less money to digital advertising consultants to develop online strategies and instead moving their programs in-house, the Democratic digital group Acronym noted recently. Campaigns — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttegieg’s — are opting to hire staff who directly run their advertising programs, partially in a bid to save money on traditional consultant commissions.
Tulsi Gabbard: $100,198 on billboards
The Hawaii congresswoman’s single biggest expense went into an unusual form of advertising: billboards, according to her FEC filing. Many of her competitors would drop that cash on digital ads, arguably reaching more voters.
Bernie Sanders: $751,068 on swag
Sanders’ campaign bought a lot of t-shirts, buttons, hats and bumper stickers in the second quarter — over three-quarters of a million dollars worth, using them to stock Sanders’ online campaign store. It’s not just for fun or for random on-the-street advertising: Sanders’ campaign has been using stickers and other items to entice donations from his email list.
Joe Biden: $256,798 on private jet travel
The Biden campaign gave $256,798.18 to Advanced Aviation, a charter jet and helicopter service. Using private jets was a source of contention during the 2016 race: Bernie Sanders took some criticism for his frequent travel on private jets.
Pete Buttigieg: $299,066 on private jet travel
Buttigieg also racked up a big bill on private jets — a practice he can afford as the top second-quarter fundraiser in the 2020 primary field, who packed his recent schedule full of events requiring quick travel. He flew around on three different private jet companies during the second quarter, dishing out $299,065.56 to Advanced Aviation, Vertivue Air Charter and Evojets.
Joe Biden: $12,075 on paella
Biden spent $12,075.00 on food from the Los Angeles-based Got Paella, which serves the traditional Spanish seafood-and-rice dishes, in early May, shortly after he launched his campaign — likely for a fundraiser when the former vice president stopped in Southern California. While prospecting for online donors is costing Democratic campaigns a lot, traditional high-dollar fundraising events come with serious costs as well, from candidate travel to the spread for guests.
It’s unclear if Biden or anyone else shouted “What am I supposed to do with all this paella?” before, during or after the event.
Pete Buttigieg: $64,000 to two event spaces in NYC, Fenway Park
Buttigieg is known for his sold-out fundraisers, and it costs a lot to host those standing-room-only crowds. Two of Buttigieg’s most expensive line-items went to site rentals in New York City and Boston in June. There was $27,901.39 to Brooklyn Steel for a grassroots fundraiser and $36,276.88 to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, for a fundraiser in one of the field’s suites.
Cory Booker: $500 on car repairs
The Booker campaign charged $500.00 for “auto repair” to Capital Certified Collision Center, a Washington D.C.-based auto body shop.
Marianne Williamson: $2,011 to self-help movie company Streaming for the Soul
Williamson paid $2,011.30 to Streaming for the Soul, LLC, a streaming video company that offers titles online including “Psychic Mediumship” and “Living the Luminous Life.” Williamson paid the company for videography, editing and other services.
Seven candidates: $652,517 to powerhouse Democratic law firm Perkins Coie
Almost one-third of the Democratic presidential field has retained Perkins Coie for legal services, sending nearly two-thirds of a million dollars to the firm in the second quarter. Under Marc Elias, the chair of the firm’s political law practice, Perkins Coie has taken over legal business for most of the Democratic Party’s top committees and campaigns and is always a good bet to be involved in recount or voting-rights litigation where Democrats have a stake in the outcome.
But little illustrates Perkins Coie’s size and influence in Democratic politics than the fact that these campaigns — including two of the five first-tier candidates in Harris and Warren — are all eager to retain the firm’s resources despite being locked in competition with each other. Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders, among others, used different law firms in the second quarter.
Jay Inslee: $30,226 to the mysterious, ingeniously named fundraising firm Banana Stand LLC
The Inslee paid $30,226.10 to a Gilbert, Ariz.-based fundraising firm that appears to have been named with a nod to the sitcom Arrested Development. But the “Mr. Manager” behind Banana Stand LLC remains a mystery: The firm has no website, and only one other federal campaign — Richard Ojeda’s 2018 bid for House of Representatives — has paid money to a firm called Banana Stand LLC in recent years.
Joe Biden: $3.5 million on digital advertising
Biden spent $3,435,563.74 on expenses marked as digital advertising in three months — a mammoth sum that shows how he’s working to build up a list of small-dollar donors, 10 years after the last time he ran a race solo. It was the single biggest expense for the Biden campaign last quarter, but it helped return a big day-one fundraising number, $8.3 million in second-quarter small-dollar donations, and easily more than enough donors to qualify for future debates.
Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders: $16,497 and $13,634, respectively, on Airbnb
While many campaigns stick to traditional hotels, some are increasingly branching out into Airbnb, whether they’re seeking cost efficiencies or just going with the 21st-century flow. Two that went all in: Yang and Sanders, which spent $16,497.43 and $13,634.44 on Airbnb last quarter, respectively. Beto O’Rourke spent a smaller amount: $1,901.82.
Cory Booker: $1,500 to rent out space in a private club in Philadelphia
Booker’s campaign put down $1,500.00 to rent space at the elite Fitler Club, a “private lifestyle club” for young sophisticates where membership each year costs upwards of $5,000 per year, according to Eater Philadelphia. The rental appears to have been for a May 16 fundraiser hosted by a pair of Philadelphia lawyers.
Elizabeth Warren: $9,295 to a PAC helping her bid
Warren paid $9,295.00 to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a PAC that endorsed the Massachusetts senator earlier this year. The expenses were for “campaign materials and internet advertising,” the filing said. The PCCC is one of Warren’s oldest allies in politics, and the group likes to promote its place in the “Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.”
Seth Moulton: $1,109 on Harvard Clubs
Moulton’s campaign spent $1,069 at the Harvard Club of New York for lodging on May 29. Moulton, who has three degrees from Harvard, also spent $40 for “membership dues” for the Harvard Club of Boston.
Kamala Harris: $4,943 at upscale hotels
The Harris campaign is sleeping in style: It paid $4,943.49 to three four- and five-star hotels during the second quarter. The Harris campaign paid $978.78 to The Line, a stylish modern hotel in Los Angeles; $1,535.20 to the historic The Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento; and $2,429.51 to Loews New York, presumably for a stay at the Loews Regency on Park Avenue. The payments were for multiple stays and multiple individuals, a Harris campaign spokesman said.
Pete Buttigieg: $112,890 on lodging during the Democratic National Committee’s first debates
Buttigieg dropped $112,890.12 at the Hilton Miami Downtown during the DNC’s debate week, a hefty sum for the marquee event. But the campaign was hosting a big event of its own, in addition to housing staff for several days. The hotel is where Buttigieg and top aides detailed the plans for the next stage of their campaign to donors, including significantly ramping up early-state staff by Labor Day.
Beto O’Rourke: $328 on minor league baseball
Beto O’Rourke spent $328 for an event at the Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team based in Des Moines. The team ran a promotion earlier this year inviting fans to watch the movie “Field of Dreams” after a game; undoubtedly, O’Rourke and other underdog Democrats are hoping the first caucus state makes their own dreams come true next year.
Kamala Harris: $500,000 for new online donors
Harris dropped a cool half-million dollars in April and May for “digital acquisition,” which is campaign-speak for buying contact lists for potential small-dollar donors. She purchased the lists from the firm Authentic Campaigns, Inc., her main digital vendor. Harris’ campaign fundraising has been carefully balanced between small- and large-dollar donors so far, per her FEC reports, partly because of careful and long-term list-building activities.
Amy Klobuchar: $324 on a Minneapolis Star-Tribune subscription
Klobuchar may be running for president, but she’s still keeping tabs on her hometown paper. Her presidential campaign is still paying up for a subscription to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, as well as subscriptions to The New York Times.
Eric Swalwell and Seth Moulton: $9,066 and $12,400, respectively, for coworking spaces
Not every presidential campaign has a sprawling headquarters or its own dedicated field offices. Swalwell’s short-lived presidential campaign appears to have set itself up at least in part at The Yard 13, a coworking company with offices in several cities. Moulton’s campaign, meanwhile, spent $12,400 on WeWork, a coworking company.
Pete Buttigieg: $153,048 on security
Buttigieg hired several security firms for the second quarter, providing personal and event security for the campaign. The Secret Service doesn’t typically get involved in non-incumbent campaigns until later on in an election cycle, and unlike other candidates, Buttigieg has also dealt with protesters at his events attacking him for being gay.
Seth Moulton: $116,300 on primary state research
Moulton’s campaign spent $50,500 for primary state focus groups and $65,800 on primary state polling from veteran consultancy The Mellman Group in late May. He may be a long-shot, but he clearly didn’t jump into the presidential race blind. Notably, The Mellman Group polled for Moulton when he pulled off his Democratic primary upset over a longtime incumbent in 2014.
Pete Buttigieg: $1,133,151 on merch
Buttigieg’s campaign spent seven figures to pump out a range of merchandise for the once little-known mayor who became a viral sensation in 2019. His online campaign store features T-shirts that say: “Pete, Chasten, Buddy & Truman,” which is a play on the candidate, his spouse and their dogs. Another one? “Chasten for First Gentleman,” featuring his smiling face.
Michael Bennet: $550 on books at Barnes and Noble
When the Colorado senator shows up for a meet-and-greet at a home in Iowa or New Hampshire, he doesn’t come empty-handed. His campaign spent $549.54 on books at Barnes and Noble, which Bennet gifts to his hosts. The titles, often wrapped in a blue ribbon, include “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond and “Frederick Douglass,” by David W. Blight.
Andrew Yang: $377 on a karaoke event space
Andrew Yang’s campaign spent $376.65 for “event space” at Karaoke City, which bills itself as “Midtown Manhattan’s Largest Karaoke Experience” in May. We should all be so lucky to experience it.
Amy Klobuchar: $65,000 on office set-up services
The Klobuchar campaign got a lot of help moving into their campaign headquarters in Minneapolis. The campaign spent $65,801.40 on Synergy Builders, LLC, a construction company to help set up their office space — a step above a last-minute IKEA raid. The campaign also paid another $1,900.73 to AAA Movers in Minneapolis for additional “office set up,” according to her FEC filing. The campaign also dropped $22,912.37 on office supplies and equipment.
John Delaney: $699 on cake
John Delaney spent $699 at Smith Island Baking Company, a cake company in Crisfield, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay. That’s enough to serve cake to more than 170 people, according to the estimates on the site — or, in 2020 campaign terms, 0.13 percent of the 130,000 individual donors Democrats need to amass to qualify for the September debates.