As the party’s leading presidential candidates announced their early fundraising hauls this week, top Democratic officials watched with surprise and growing unease at the paltry totals.
The results of the first-quarter 2019 money race between Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and South Bend Mayor Pete Beutigieg fell short of the amounts that the leading Democratic nominees pulled in during the first quarter of 2007, the last time there was such an open primary. And as donors and party elders start looking ahead, many said campaigns needed to reimagine their fundraising operations if they wanted to be positioned to win the nomination and beat Donald Trump in a general election.
“Nobody likes bundlers, but the reality is that with Obama in 2008 and 2012, they provided a lot of the money. Yes, he had a grassroots component but he also had a very significant high-dollar component,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and longtime party donor. “My view is that we as a party should not do unilateral disarmament. We are in the biggest crisis the country has ever been in and have to do everything we can to get rid of this guy... Anybody who wants to help us get rid of him, we should take their money!”
Friction within the Democratic Party over how its members should raise money is nothing new. But in the early stages of the 2020 election, it’s become a thornier topic than in campaigns past. Top donors have grown increasingly convinced that campaigns are foolish in their belief that online fundraising will be a panacea. A new class of younger campaign operatives, meanwhile, see the traditional big-moneyed donor as a relic of the past, desperately clinging to an outdated model that amplified their influence.
So far, the latter side is winning the argument. To date, almost all of the candidates running for president have said that they will not raise money from political action committees. Others, like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have pledged not to host high-profile fundraisers or even place phone calls with wealthy donors. And others, like Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), have said they will forgo contributions from executives in specific industries.
The picture has been complicated by the difficulty some campaigns have had in raising money. Behind the scenes, donors say, candidates have continued to make overtures to the party’s traditional big-check writers. But according to one top party financier, that outreach has been “nowhere near as aggressive as it was in the past.”
Several major party fundraiser told The Daily Beast that donors have signalled to the campaigns that they want the field to narrow before deciding who to back. “Most high level donors are staying on the sidelines anyway,” said Tim Lim, a Democratic strategist and fundraiser. “They won't want to pick sides right now in this insane primary.” But in private conversations, a more damning assessment is offered: The campaigns themselves just aren’t that good at cultivating donor networks beyond their home turfs.
“There is like a competency level, which is kind of stunning. But these operations are not necessarily that good at this stuff,” said a Democratic donor, who has given heavily to presidential campaigns. “The people tasked with reaching out to us for money aren’t really that good at it.”
For all those complaints, few were willing to draw direct lines between the lack of engagement with big-dollar donors and the fundraising totals that the four top Democrats reported. But several among more than a dozen donors, operatives, and campaign veterans interviewed argued that it was a contributing factor and all described the totals as a variation of “underwhelming.”
Sanders reported raising $18.2 million during the first quarter. But just $8.2 million of that came after the initial surge in donations during the campaign’s first week. Harris, who has been more willing to lean on fundraisers than others, raised $12 million in her 70 days on the trail. O’Rourke raised $9.4 million in his 18 days campaigning, but $6.1 million of that came in the first 24 hours. And Buttigieg surprised the most by pulling in $7 million in 68 days.
By contrast, Obama raised $25.7 million in the first quarter of 2007; Hillary Clinton raised $26.1 million; John Edwards raised $14 million; and Bill Richardson raised $6 million. A good chunk of that was due to big checks. More than 46 percent of the individuals who donated to Clinton in that quarter gave the maximum contribution of $2,300, according to a review of campaign finance records. Nearly 23 percent did so for Obama; 33 percent for Richardson; and 16 percent for Edwards.
“What Obama did is he decided he would run in three primaries. And in order to do that David Plouffe [his campaign manager] ran a Republican campaign. It was businesslike. They decided what they needed financially for those three primaries and they raised what they needed to. That was really smart. And when Iowa occurred things just exploded,” said another major Democratic donor. “Now you have the reverse where Bernie and certainly Beto are betting on the internet. And that’s fine. But are you going to be able to raise $125 million in a year online? More importantly, if these campaigns aren’t run like a business, you are screwed.”
Officials working on current presidential campaigns cheer the fact that they’re using a different fundraising paradigm than their predecessors, arguing that their model is strategically sounder. Clinton and Obama may have raised more money than Sanders and O’Rourke. But they also likely spent more money to get those totals and they still ended up with a more limited pool of potential givers. Sanders, in the first quarter of 2019, raised less than Obama in the first quarter of 2007. But there were approximately 900,000 individual donations to his campaign compared to roughly 24,000 donations to Obama’s. Sanders’ campaign also spent roughly $4 million during that time period—a pittance for a major presidential operation.
Citing the low overhead in raising money online, one top operative on a rival 2020 campaign argued that the current Democratic field was actually well positioned for a lengthy contest, even if they were trailing past candidates in terms of money raised.
“My own interpretation of the data is different,” said the operative. “Yes the expectations for the top two [Bernie and Beto] were too high. But the idea that they won't have way more money than they can ever spend is insane.”
That may turn out true; though it’s impossible to tell at this juncture since only Sanders’ campaign has revealed the cash that it has on hand.
But others in the party are dubious. Sanders, they argue, is unique in his ability to rely on a grassroots-only fundraising model, and those who believe they can emulate it run risks. While the Vermont Independent brought in an average of roughly $300,000 a day following his first day haul, O’Rourke raised just $200,000 a day following his. Harris raised even less: approximately $152,000 a day. Without a firmer financial foundation, campaign veterans said, it would become increasingly difficult for those campaigns to slog through a contentious primary, especially during a cycle in which the large field made it less likely that a winner would be decided by an early voting state.
“A good fundraising program is like a good retirement portfolio,” said Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run. “You’re not depending on any one thing. Low-dollar donors are like equity or stocks. It is very volatile. Everybody thinks about windalls but no one thinks about deserts. But both happen.”
Operatives on some of the current Democratic campaigns argue that a mixed-bag approach along the lines of what Mook outlined comes with some downsides. A candidate who is willing to embrace big-dollar fundraisers and bundled money (numerous maxed-out contributions raised by a network of donors) will become inherently less attractive to small-dollar givers. And as that happens, the candidate will become ever more reliant on the former than the latter.
But not everyone buys this logic. There is a brewing fear among some operatives that the party has overestimated voter aversion to big donor culture and are foregoing financial support for no reason other than they think it will sell with the public.
“I think that too many candidates are focusing on winning the 2019 Twitter primary and thus taking positions—including on where they raise money—that will hurt them in the 2020 primaries among real, live voters,” said Ken Baer, a former top Obama official. “The campaign finance system we have is broken, but got to play by the rules of the game we have, not the game you want.”
For the most part, Democratic officials said they weren’t overly concerned about how the remainder of the primary would play out. Campaigns would make adjustments based on the money they raise. And, eventually, donors would become more engaged as the field winnowed.
The concerns were with what came after a nominee was chosen. The prospect of unseating Trump would provide the necessary motivation for donors to open up their checkbooks. But it’s not entirely clear if whoever is running against Trump—having emerged from a primary in which it the prevailing wisdom was to forswear such fundraising—will have the network to tap into that pool of money or the willingness to do so.
“How,” asked one Democratic donor, “will you run a billion-dollar campaign while eschewing money and pretending it doesn’t matter?”
Additional reporting: Jackie Kucinich