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We're beginning to get a peek at how the 2020 presidential candidates are lining up at this early stage. Some of them are announcing their fundraising totals for the first quarter of the year; a surprise - Democrat Pete Buttigieg says he's raised more than $7 million. On the other hand, President Trump, who began running for re-election as soon as he took office, has already raised and spent more than $70 million. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: President Trump did something presidents have never done before - he took office and immediately began raising money. In the two years leading up to the 2018 House and Senate elections, it became hard to tell who was the candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Hello, Florida.
Thank you very much, Missouri.
OVERBY: Before the midterm elections, Trump campaigned for Republican Senate candidates and held 18 rallies in 20 days. By the end of last year, the Trump re-election campaign had raised $79 million and spent $78 million. Kayleigh McEnany is national press secretary for the Trump re-election campaign.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY: The closer you are to the president and to his agenda and the more closely you're aligned, the better chance you have prevailing as a Republican candidate.
OVERBY: The candidates got a little time on stage at Trump's rallies. But mainly, the rallies were working for Trump's re-election run - raising money and collecting participants' contact information so the campaign could hit them up later for money or volunteer work. Again, Kayleigh McEnany.
MCENANY: One of the key drivers of our spending would be rallies, and that was intentionally designed, that the president, you know, would help Republicans down ballot in the midterm.
OVERBY: Campaign experts in both parties say it's the wrong way to go about campaign building. They say it's inefficient, and rallies don't do much to grow the donor base. Jim Messina was manager of former President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
JIM MESSINA: I think it's, you know, at one point, a very good thing to build data and an infrastructure, but another point, a pretty expensive vanity project for the president.
OVERBY: Strategists predict that digital advertising and fundraising will play a much bigger, more costly role next year than they ever have before. The Trump campaign says it's prepared for that. Messina said the campaign wasted cash on too many rallies.
MESSINA: They kind of got to build the online presence and the online fundraising base, which is harder and more expensive.
OVERBY: He also pointed to the risk of tapping out donors too early. Donors can't give presidential candidates more than $5,400 each.
MESSINA: The problem is, you want to go into a cycle with money in the bank. And, you know, the easiest money to get are your fervent supporters, who will give you money whenever you ask, and they've kind of gotten that money.
OVERBY: Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has had some unusual expenditures, including more than $6 million in legal bills. Most of it went to defense attorneys in cases including Trump's alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower and several allegations involving Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But McEnany, the campaign's press secretary, said things are on the right track. The campaign finished 2018 with more than $19 million in the bank. She said that when the first-quarter financial reports are filed...
MCENANY: Our cash on hand is going to extend far beyond the $19.3 million that it's currently at.
OVERBY: Those reports are due at the Federal Election Commission by April 15. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.