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Are Warren and Sanders ‘100% grassroots-funded’?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at a campaign event on Sept. 27 in Hollis, N.H. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

“We are 100% funded at the grassroots level.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in an interview with Rolling Stone, Sept. 13

“We’re 100% grassroots-funded.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in a tweet, July 26

Sanders and Warren have been raking in campaign cash as 2020 presidential candidates, most of it from donors giving $200 or less.

For this election cycle, the two liberal senators self-imposed fundraising restrictions — swearing off PAC money and cozy fundraising events with wealthy donors, for example.

Both are ardent critics of the glut of money in politics, and because of their self-imposed limits, both say their campaigns are “100 percent” funded by grass-roots donors.

These identical claims got our interest.

Sanders and Warren have raised most of their campaign money this year from small-dollar donations. Yet both also have tapped millions of dollars left over from previous campaigns — from a time when they had not yet adopted the strict fundraising practices they currently follow. That complicates their claim to “100 percent” grass-roots purity.

It’s a good example of how the complexities of the campaign finance system sometimes get blurred in the service of an appealing talking point. Let’s dig in.

The Facts

Sanders had raised $46.3 million by the end of the second quarter, according to Federal Election Commission records. That includes $10.1 million transferred from previous campaigns.

When not counting transfers, 77 percent of Sanders’s fundraising this year came from donations of $200 or less. That’s the highest share of small-dollar donations relative to total fundraising among all major candidates. When counting transfers, the share of small-dollar donations is 60 percent.

Warren had raised $35.6 million by the end of the second quarter, FEC records show. That includes $10.4 million transferred from her 2018 Senate campaign.

When not counting transfers, 67 percent of Warren’s fundraising this year came from donations of $200 or less. When counting transfers, the proportion is 48 percent.

“Grass-roots funding” has no formal definition. Sanders and Warren seem to define it in terms of the money they won’t accept.

Sanders doesn’t hold closed-door fundraisers to solicit high-dollar contributions and doesn’t accept money from corporate PACs or super PACs, or from fossil fuel, drug or insurance companies. Warren doesn’t hold closed-door fundraisers to solicit high-dollar contributions and doesn’t accept money from federal lobbyists or PACs, or fossil fuel or pharmaceutical executives.

Considering these restrictions, it’s plausible to describe all the money Sanders and Warren have raised directly this year as grass-roots funding.

But there’s another piece of the pie here. As noted, Sanders and Warren each have transferred nearly $10 million from previous campaigns to their 2020 presidential committees.

In Sanders’s case, FEC records show he had transferred $4.6 million from his 2016 to 2020 presidential campaign committee as of the end of the second quarter.

In his previous presidential campaign, Sanders had somewhat looser fundraising restrictions in place. News reports show he held at least a few events in 2015 where he sought high-dollar donations.

Time magazine reported in December 2015: “Sanders has hosted at least nine medium- to high-dollar, closed-door fundraisers in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere to directly fund his own presidential campaign. Even though Sanders’ efforts sometimes have a proletarian flair — he held one $200-per-ticket fundraiser at a dive bar near a grungy Seattle park — some aspects of the Democratic insurgent’s fundraising are similar to the candidates he condemns.”

The New York Times reported in October 2015: “Mr. Sanders was cheered at a fancy campaign fund-raiser at the Hollywood home of Syd Leibovitch, a high-end real estate agent, and his wife, Linda, on Wednesday night. Tickets for the event sold for a minimum of $250. Those who spent the maximum, $2,700, or who raised $10,000, were invited to a ‘pre-event reception,’ according to the invitation.”

Sanders spokeswoman Sarah Ford said: “In 2016, we held zero closed-door fundraisers with high-dollar donors and accepted no donations from corporate PACs, corporate lobbyists or super PACs.”

When we asked about the high-dollar fundraising in 2015, though, a Sanders aide said, “We do not plan to transfer the amount of money from the 2016 account that came from fundraisers with high-dollar donors in attendance.”

The Sanders aide added that, for the 2020 campaign, grass-roots fundraisers “run alongside the senator’s schedule at public venues and are live-streamed on social media.” The aide added: “They are open to the public and tickets start at $27.”

In Warren’s case, FEC records show she jump-started her presidential campaign this year with a $10.4 million transfer from her 2018 Senate committee. The infusion allowed her to build a campaign apparatus early in the race.

For her 2018 Senate reelection campaign, Warren raised money at events with high-dollar donors. A search of her FEC records showed max contributions of $5,400 from the chief executives of DreamWorks and Yelp, media mogul Haim Saban, philanthropist Alexander Soros, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, hedge fund owners and wealthy investors, and some donors who have given millions to the Democratic Party. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, film director Steven Spielberg and actress Barbra Streisand each donated $2,700 to Warren’s Senate campaign. (The contribution limit for individuals is $2,700 per race, but they can give that amount for both a primary and general election.)

Warren also benefited from some PAC donations when she ran for Senate, though it was a small share of her fundraising, as we explained in this fact check.

Warren raised $6 million in donations of $1,000 or more to her 2018 Senate campaign, a spokesman said. That’s about 23 percent of her total $25.8 million fundraising for that race. According to OpenSecrets, Sanders raised nearly $28 million in donations of $1,000 or more to his 2016 presidential campaign, a little more than 10 percent of his total $232 million haul for that race.

“The open secret of Ms. Warren’s campaign is that her big-money fund-raising through 2018 helped lay the foundation for her anti-big-money run for the presidency,” the Times reported this month, noting “trips to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Martha’s Vineyard, and Philadelphia — all with fundraisers on the agenda.”

The Warren campaign in response to our questions said the average contribution to her Senate campaign in 2018 was $29.45, a sign of broad appeal among grass-roots donors.

Warren also “raised or donated $11 million to Democrats running for office and state parties in all 50 states,” a spokesman said.

“Elizabeth’s schedule is filled with town halls and selfie lines, not closed-door fundraisers with millionaires and billionaires, because she believes that to take back the White House we need to build a grassroots movement,” Warren spokesman Chris Hayden wrote in an email. “When we made the decision to run the campaign this way, the players in the usual money-for-influence game dismissed it as naive and said it would never work and it would kill the campaign. We're pleased that our grassroots strategy has been so effective that they're now threatened enough to be attacking us for it.”

The Pinocchio Test

Sanders and Warren say they’re running presidential campaigns funded “100%” by grass-roots donors. It’s a big claim with no wiggle room.

Money is fungible, so it’s an artifice to claim that money from wealthy donors last time around isn’t being used this time around.

The key here is that Sanders and Warren define their presidential campaigns as entirely grass-roots-funded because of their self-imposed restrictions: no hobnobbing with rich donors in closed events and no PAC money, for example.

But Warren held high-dollar fundraisers for her 2018 Senate run and then transferred $10.4 million from that campaign account to her presidential committee. Her Senate run raised $6 million from donors who gave $1,000 or more, and she also took some PAC contributions.

Sanders in 2015 sought and received big checks from wealthy donors. Sanders’s 2020 committee so far has gotten $4.6 million from his prior presidential campaign.

These are omissions worthy of Two Pinocchios. As a share of total fundraising, however, Sanders was less dependent than Warren on high-dollar contributions in his previous campaign.

Two Pinocchios

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