Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Republicans are trying to read the tea leaves after the first GOP primary debate.
Former President Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner who is contending with four indictments, skipped the debate entirely. And with a dozen other candidates still vying for the GOP nomination, political pundits are trying to figure out where the party is headed.
In addition to polling, fundraising has been one of the key barometers of party support. And while many of the publicly available numbers are currently self-reported and should be taken with a grain of salt, a boost in campaign funding after a big moment like the debate can offer some insight into how political donors are weighing the options.
So, what can we learn from the contribution numbers that followed the first debate?
There was some good news for the more serious conservatives, former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence. Both are trying to present themselves an alternative to Trump, emphasizing their respect for the processes of government and their understanding of the coalition-building responsibilities that fall on the party’s nominee (though opponents will note that their criticism of Trump only came after they served in his administration).
Haley and Pence both performed well enough on this front. Haley said she had raised $1 million dollars in the days after she advocated for a “consensus” on abortion and dressed down tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy for his lack of foreign policy experience.
Pence also enjoyed a fundraising bump, with a top adviser saying the campaign saw more than 1,000 new contributions. On Monday, Pence also raked in $250,000 at an event hosted by an oil executive, where donors reportedly praised the former vice president for his combative turn at the debate, according to Politico. Politico quoted Pence backer Victor Smith, who described the comments Pence got at the event as: “’Gosh, you look like you had a little fight in you, we love seeing it, where did that guy come from?”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose image as a formidable rival to Trump has been supplanted by that of a struggling candidate, also reported raising $1 million in the days that followed. While his campaign was certainly hoping to outflank his opponents in more dramatic fashion, the fundraising bump was somewhat of a surprise, given his middling debate performance.
There were mixed reviews for some of the newer voices of the party. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who was seen as one of the most promising figures of the GOP, had raised significant amounts of cash since announcing his candidacy in May. But his debate performance didn’t impress – in fact, there were points when he was barely able to squeeze a word in.
Ramaswamy seems to be enjoying a big surge when it comes to media attention, name recognition and campaign funding. He raised $450,000 in the hours after the debate, a campaign spokesperson said. While he might not have matched some of his competitors on that front, he has certainly exceeded expectations as someone who was largely unknown just six months ago. Although his moderate success might just point to his being the most recent candidate to capture the public imagination, others speculate that his bombastic, smashmouth extremism is exactly what the next generation of Republicans are craving.
The two Republicans vying to represent the Republican “establishment,” former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, didn’t make much of a splash. Neither candidate has publicly released figures in the aftermath of the debate, although Hutchinson said that he added 4,000 new donors on debate night.
So, who was the big winner? None of them. All of their success is overshadowed by the former president, whose campaign said it brought in a whopping $9.4 million in the aftermath of his Georgia indictment. Trump, who saw his mug shot as a fund-raising opportunity, has blitzed supporters with the kind of merch usually reserved for rock bands and sports teams.
As New Republic columnist Michael Tomasky wrote, “The conventional wisdom asks: How can Donald Trump simultaneously participate in all these criminal trials and run for president? The question misses the point of Trumpism … The trials are the campaign. To Trump’s followers, nothing else will matter.”
Any news that emerged from the debate was soon overwhelmed by Trump and his booking in Fulton County, Georgia. Right now, the other GOP candidates can’t compete with the media attention, the love of Republican voters and the campaign dollars that are being heaped onto Trump. At this point, being the target of multiple grand juries is a better path toward dominating the Republican primaries than strong debate performances, compelling ideas or even the promise of being able to build the broadest political coalition.
While Republicans were trying to sell one-minute soundbites and blistering quips against each other, Trump, who didn’t even feel the need to show up, is raking in more money by leaning into his trouble with the law. In a party that has embraced an anything-goes mentality, is this really much of a surprise?