Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren raised less money in recent months than rival 2020 Democrats, but their decisions to rely on small-dollar donors could position them better for the long haul than candidates who are accepting money from big donors.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden, who finished first and second in fundraising for the second quarter of 2019, have snagged high-spending donors early on in the race. But donors who have maxed out their individual contributions can’t give again to Buttigieg and Biden’s primary campaigns. Sanders and Warren, in contrast, are relying more on small-dollar supporters who can continue giving throughout the primary season.
Sanders and Warren are not attending high-dollar fundraisers, a strategy aimed at winning over the party’s progressive base. Biden and Buttigieg have also raised significant sums in small donations, but also have also courted wealthy Democratic fundraisers.
Candidates like Sanders and Warren have “a giant list that they can go back to,” said David Karpf, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University. 2020 Democrats who are relying on big donors are “setting a ceiling down the road,” he added.
The latest fundraising totals underscored the divide between candidates who are accepting money from wealthy donors and corporate political action committees, and others who are focused on building grassroots support.
Buttigieg led the pack with a nearly $25 million haul in the past three months, despite hovering in the single digits in national polling. Biden finished second with $22 million for the second quarter, followed by Warren at $19.2 million, Sanders at $18 million, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California at $11.8 million.
“Just from the fundraising numbers, it looks like Mayor Pete has the best combination of offline and online fundraising,” said Tim Lim, a partner with the Democratic firm NEWCO Strategies.
Buttigieg’s fundraising surprised many Democrats. And Biden has a large pool of major donors to draw from after decades in the national spotlight.
But Sanders and Warren’s fundraising total proved they can compete in the money race despite eschewing high-dollar fundraisers during the primaries.
For the rest of the field, especially candidates polling at or below 1 percent, the fundraising totals showed they’re quickly running out of opportunities to break out of the pack.
“Good fundraising numbers compared to the rest of the pack can be an explanation for why you should stay” in the race, Karpf said.
That includes candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee. Both posted numbers below $4 million for April through June.
Strong fundraising is not just measured in dollars raised, however. The Democratic National Committee set new rules this election cycle to qualify for the debates, requiring candidates to raise money from a certain number of individual donors in order to make it on the debate stage. For the June and July debates, candidates needed at least 65,000 individual donors. That numbers jumps up to 130,000 for the September debate.
While those rules are partly in place to winnow down the large field, it has also forced campaigns to build a small-dollar donor base, similar to the one that powered Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign.
Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist, said the donor rule will help the eventual Democratic nominee build the infrastructure to go up against President Donald Trump.
“It’s really setting them up to be able to last for a long time,” he said.
As campaigns race to meet the 130,000-donor threshold ahead of the fall, they’re also building up their digital infrastructure to bulk up their email lists to be able to capitalize on “viral moments” that could lead to major fundraising.
For example, after Harris sparred with Biden on the debate stage in June, her campaign raised $2 million in the ensuing 24 hours after blasting out emails that called on supporters to donate. That sum accounted for a sixth of what Harris raised in the entire second quarter.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julían Castro’s campaign also reported a major uptick in donations following his breakout debate performance last month.
After the debate, supporters received texts from the campaign asking for a donation. “We have a very short window of time to capitalize on this incredible momentum,” one text said. “It’s so critical that we seize this moment.”
The Castro campaign said its fundraising increased by more than 3,000 percent in the next 48 hours, compared to the two-day period before the debate.
Candidates are “doing everything right to capitalize on these moments,” Wilson said. “They’re building their email lists early before the flood of attention comes. So then they can ask for money when that moment arrives.”
Still, the Democratic field is far behind the Trump campaign’s enormous 2020 war chest. Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee raised a combined $108 million last quarter, breaking records former President Barack Obama set during his 2012 reelection campaign.
Trump’s reelection team and the Republican National Committee have effectively been fundraising for 2020 for most of his presidency. Super PACs are already lining up behind the president and he is not foregoing corporate PAC contributions like most of the Democratic candidates. Trump also boasts a significant small-donor base: a majority of his donations in the second quarter were for less than $200.
“They’re bringing in more and more money each time,” Wilson said of Trump and the RNC. “I’m surprised that more campaigns aren’t aren’t following the Trump model of investing early in building a [small donor] list.”
Democrats should not be discouraged, Lim argued, adding that Trump’s fundraising prowess should motivate the party’s presidential hopefuls to step up their efforts.
“We need a Democratic candidate who’s going to be able to step up to that challenge and be able to confront that head on,” he said.