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While the eye-popping campaign figures amassed by 2020 presidential hopefuls reflect the reality of running for office in the 21st century, they also should give voters pause before donating, making space to consider what motivates their decision to support one candidate or cause over another.

The country got its first look at the finances of the 2020 presidential candidate campaigns on Monday, and though cash is not a guaranteed recipe for success, it clearly doesn’t hurt when planning rallies, making campaign stops, crafting advertisements and paying a small army of consultants.

The amount of money raised is also an indicator of where trends are headed. Sen. Bernie Sanders came out on top for the first quarter of the year having brought in $18.2 million, of which $15.3 million came from donations of less than $200. Next is Sen. Kamala Harris, who raised $12 million, most of which came from big time check-writers. On the Republican side, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has raised $30 million in the first quarter of this year.

That’s good money for the first few months. By way of comparison, however, it’s not the outrageous number some might think. Hillary Clinton raised $45 million in the first quarter of her campaign four years ago, and Republican candidate Jeb Bush amassed a staggering $80 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The country no doubt remembers how well those sums translated to political victory. It’s clear that money does not equal success.

Additionally, it’s not just the thrill of backing a favorite candidate that tugs at the wallets of donors. Political controversy too often dons the role of Pied Piper and draws dollars to the latest congressional scuffle.

Minnesota House Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar has topped the other House Democrats by raising more than $800,000 during her first few months in office, according to the Federal Election Commission. That comes despite — or maybe because of — a string of controversial comments. In another vein, both parties sent out pleas for fundraising during the Judge Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the ensuing political battles.

Just like election campaigns, cash raised in controversy doesn’t always translate to better governance. In fact, it usually entrenches the status quo and allows political leaders to put off discussions on the key issues. While backing a candidate makes a statement about what you’re for, throwing money behind a political battle usually indicates you’re against the other side.

11 comments on this story

The difference between funding positive change and digging deeper political trenches is simply a matter of perception, and the responsibility for discerning the difference rests on voters and donors. Before tossing money behind a candidate or a cause, consider whether it’s worth it. Contemplate certain questions: Is this candidate interested in building up or tearing down? Will this battle move the needle or keep things how they are? Would this person be doing what they’re doing even if they weren’t on the national stage?

The answers could mean the difference between money used to propel the country forward or cash that seems to get sucked into a political black hole. Whatever the outcome, that's for Americans to decide.