Former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign has returned nearly $1 million in donations since launching his bid for the White House in April, far exceeding what his rivals in the Democratic primary race have returned to donors.
The refunds represent $2.52 of every $100 that Biden's campaign has raised from individuals since he entered the race, according to an NBC10 Philadelphia analysis of presidential campaign filings.
That is significantly higher than other candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg — even though all three have raised more than Biden and have been in the race longer.
The refunds, technically called "disbursements," were reported by the campaigns in documents filed with the Federal Election Commission last month. They are totals covering the first nine months of 2019.
Campaigns return contributions for various reasons, including to meet promises of not accepting money from certain groups, industries or individuals and to abide by campaign finance laws. A review of Biden's refunds also suggest that his campaign may not be accepting any general election donations yet. Campaigns can accept them during the primary cycle, with the expectation that if a candidate does not win the nomination, those donations would be returned.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment for this report, so it's not exactly clear why his $951,021 in refunds outpaced other candidates so drastically. Sanders refunded $486,695, Warren refunded $220,630 and Buttigieg refunded $574,824.
A review of each campaign's filings also showed another issue for Biden's campaign: The $9 million in his campaign warchest, also known as "cash on hand," was much smaller at the FEC filing deadline Sept. 30 than the cash stockpiles of Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg. He also trailed Kamala Harris.
NBC10 Philadelphia contacted several of the hundreds of donors who were refunded by the Biden campaign, and analyzed many other disbursements.
A former congressman from Florida who describes Biden as one of his mentors is among those who had their contributions refunded.
"When he announced, I immediately sent to him the max legal contribution, which I have never done before,” former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, who gave $2,800, said in an interview.
Davis said he later read that Biden wasn’t taking money from registered lobbyists — which Davis is — and called the campaign, which returned his money.
For others, refunds came about from simple mistakes and quirks of today’s online fundraising system.
“It was my mistake. I accidentally hit the thing a couple times,” Ellen Faulkner, of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, said of her donation through a digital platform.
The analysis of refunds also revealed that Biden’s campaign appears to be returning donations that exceed the individual contribution limit of $2,800 for the Democratic primary election cycle. Federal election law allows campaigns to accept general election funds during primaries with the understanding the donations would be returned if the candidate is not his or her party’s nominee.
It’s unclear why Biden’s campaign is choosing that path.
Temple University political science professor Robin Kolodny said refusing general election money could be an effort to “not appear presumptuous” about winning a nomination.
"It's probably something they’re concerned about — people saying, 'Oh, he’s so cocky,'" Kolodny said.
The campaign could also encourage people to give elsewhere, possibly to a joint fundraising account with other committees, she said.
The Biden campaign would not confirm their general election contribution policy, but the FEC filings show numerous instances in which the exact amount of a donor’s contribution over the $2,800 primary limit was returned:
Philadelphia philanthropist Lynne Honickman gave a total of $3,125 to Biden in two donations. $325 was refunded.
California doctor Michael Sabat donated $3,500, and $700 was refunded.
Title insurance sales representative Kelly Yunker gave $5,600, and $2,800 was refunded.
There are, however, some cases in which $5,600 was donated and there is no record in the FEC filing of money being refunded by the end of the last filing period.
Campaigns are making different decisions at this stage of the primary. Buttigieg’s campaign, for instance, is accepting general election contributions. Sanders’ campaign is not.
The candidate who secures the Democratic Party’s nomination will eventually have to choose between accepting public funding or private donations in the general election — he or she is not allowed to do both.
However, the FEC allows candidates to preserve the option and still take in general election funds ahead of time if they keep the money in a separate account, refrain from using it and refund the contributions if they later decide to accept public funds.
An FEC advisory opinion issued in 2007 stated that a "presidential candidate may solicit and receive private contributions for the general election while retaining the option of refunding the contributions and receiving public funds for the general election if he receives his party's nomination." That opinion was issued in response to an inquiry from then-candidate Barack Obama, an FEC spokesperson said.
The last presidential candidate for a major party to accept public funding was John McCain in 2008, when the funding amount was $84.1 million. The total is adjusted each cycle to reflect a cost of living adjustment. It would have been $96.14 million in 2016 if a candidate had claimed it.
For the Democratic nominee, accepting public money would put a limit on how much he or she could spend in 2020.
“It’s really hard for me to fathom that any of these candidates would choose to [publicly] finance the general election given what we know about the money that’s going to be spent from the war chest on the other side,” said Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy with the Campaign Legal Center.
President Trump’s campaign manager announced earlier this month that the campaign and the Republican Party brought in $125 million combined in the last quarter.