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Gusher of cash reshapes GOP presidential contest

Republican candidates and super PACs are spending big money faster than ever before, shaking up the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
Side-by-side of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and former President Donald Trump.NBC News; Getty Images

The 2024 presidential election is just getting started — and the campaign is already raging at a faster, louder and pricier pace than ever.

Republican candidates and groups have already spent almost $30 million on ads in the party's primary this year, according to data from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. When they cross that threshold Saturday, that'll be 50 days earlier than Democrats hit that spending mark during their open presidential primary four years ago, and a full 137 days earlier than it took Republicans to cross the $30 million threshold during their last open presidential race, in October 2015.

The bulk of the spending is coming from super PACs, with former President Donald Trump’s MAGA Inc. spending to blast Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and DeSantis’ Never Back Down PAC running positive spots. And the accelerated pace underlines key dynamics shaping the Republican race for the White House.

Super PACs and megadonors are playing a bigger role than ever. Candidates have been taking advantage of loose campaign finance laws to prepare for this race — and sock away money to use or send to allies — for years before announcing campaigns. Most of all, the competition between Trump and DeSantis promises to be an all-out brawl like nothing seen before.

“It’s a very competitive race on the Republican side to be the challenger to Trump — the dynamics are just different than they were in 2016,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who served as communications director for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign.

"This time, Trump is trying to eliminate some of his competition early, the ‘kill them in the crib’ strategy," Conant continued. "And some of the would-be challengers are trying to establish that they belong."

The pace in the 2024 GOP primary is a massive escalation from the last time Republicans had an open presidential primary. Ahead of 2016, the first dollar wasn't spent on ads until April 3, 2015. Spending hit $1 million in June, $10 million in August, $20 million in late September and $30 million in October.

This year, Republican presidential ad spending hit the $1 million mark on March 25, $10 million in late April, $20 million in early May and is expected to hit $30 million on May 27.

"Inflation exists in politics too," Conant said. "It's increasingly expensive to reach voters, but it’s also easier to raise money than it used to be."

Indeed, DeSantis enters the 2024 race already boasting the support of a $20 million donor: hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, per Time magazine. It could end up being the biggest super PAC donation ever in a presidential primary — except that tech billionaire Larry Ellison has given $35 million to a super PAC aligned with Sen. Tim Scott in recent years and is set to pump yet more into 2024.

In terms of candidates officially announcing campaigns, the primary is just beginning, but those examples illustrate how the competition has really been underway for months or even years. Before launching his bid, Trump seeded his super PAC with tens of millions of dollars raised by one of his fundraising committees, largely from small-dollar donors, in 2021 and 2022. DeSantis appears poised to bolster his super PAC with more than $80 million that was largely raised while he was running for re-election in Florida.

It's not just Trump and DeSantis, either. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley incubated a small-donor list in her political nonprofit for years before saying the words, "I'm running for president." Scott built up nearly $22 million in his Senate campaign account, all of it transferable to a presidential campaign, before officially starting his 2024 bid with launch plans that included a multimillion-dollar ad buy.

All of the pre-planning helps explain why the presidential campaign has been able to accelerate so quickly compared to the last two. Candidates who can only raise a few thousand dollars maximum from each donor need time to build up funds, and the Democratic presidential field in 2020 was super PAC-averse.

The ad war hadn’t really started by this point in the 2016 GOP race, either. The top spender in late May 2015 was a nonprofit, Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, which had spent under $400,000 attacking Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

But much of the early 2024 spending has its roots in tactics that were field-tested in past campaigns, as politicians and political operatives explored the loosely defined boundaries of campaign finance law.

Former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush revolutionized presidential campaign fundraising in 2015 with a novel strategy: Before officially announcing he was a candidate, he raised $100 million into a super PAC that would go on to support his bid. Now, pre-raising super PAC funds has become a regular feature of campaigns, despite questions about whether the strategy adheres to the spirit of the law restricting how much candidates can raise from donors.

Former business executive Carly Fiorina’s campaign outsourced much of its campaign operation to a super PAC supporting her candidacy. This election cycle, DeSantis’ campaign is expected to begin with more than enough resources, but Never Back Down is signaling its intention to build out a grassroots organization — traditionally the purview of the campaign proper — to augment the campaign’s operations.

The maturation of these strategies meant Trump's and DeSantis' teams were ready to do battle right away this year. And it's not going to slow down anytime soon.