The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Early fundraising by 2020 Democrats shows they are in for a long, drawn-out fight

Sen. Kamala Harris, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, addresses labor leaders at the California Labor Federal and State Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Conference Dinner on April 1.
Sen. Kamala Harris, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, addresses labor leaders at the California Labor Federal and State Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Conference Dinner on April 1. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The limited early fundraising hauls announced by Democratic presidential hopefuls show that no clear front-runner has yet emerged in the race, and portend a drawn-out and divisive primary slog before the party unifies against President Trump.

The overall sum raised by nearly 20 Democratic presidential candidates so far is on par with the amount raised by a much smaller field at this point in 2007, a sign that candidates are struggling to break through in a crowded contest that remains wildly unpredictable.

The first-quarter fundraising reports that will be made public next week are typically seen as a key early measure of viability for primary candidates. But the figures trickling out from the campaigns show Democratic voters don’t yet know where to channel their anti-Trump energy — and money.

Democratic campaigns have raised at least $64.5 million in the first quarter, according to figures released by eight of the 16 campaigns reporting this period, which is less than the amount raised by candidates in the 2007 field.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) reported the biggest haul, at $18.2 million, followed by $12 million by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and $9.4 million by former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.). Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., reportedly raised $7 million — a large haul for a newcomer to national politics.

Three senators raised less than Buttigieg: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ($6 million), Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota ($5.2 million) and Cory Booker ($5 million). Among those who have not released their early numbers are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro.

One reason for the relatively modest totals is that many wealthy donors and fundraisers are sitting on the sidelines — waiting for former vice president Joe Biden to join the field, or simply watching to see who rises and who flames out. Also, many of the candidates have focused on wooing donors who give in small increments online.

Some Democratic strategists expressed concern about the early figures, which they described as lackluster.

Rufus Gifford, finance director for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said campaigns are hindering themselves by failing to maximize all sources of money, which includes courting wealthier donors willing to give up to the limit of $2,800. Their support, he said, will be crucial once the nominee is selected.

“I don’t think that we can find these numbers acceptable, considering where the energy of the country is, and the stakes in 2020,” Gifford said. “I want the strongest candidate with the best chance to beat Trump, and I don’t want [a lack of] money to be a factor there.”

Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, called some of the numbers “worrying” — particularly from Warren, who put herself at a fundraising disadvantage when she pledged not to hold fundraisers with donors who write bigger checks.

He said it will be particularly important for candidates to raise a lot of money early in the campaign this year because the Democratic primary calendar has changed, moving up two of the biggest and most expensive primaries: California and Texas.

The eventual nominee will go up against a foe who has been aggressively fundraising for two years, with no primary to spend on so far. By the end of last year, Trump’s campaign had raised more than $129 million for his reelection — an enormous sum that gives him a formidable head start that has likely widened in the first quarter of this year.

Trump enters the 2020 election cycle with a massive fundraising lead over Democrats

Trump’s record-breaking reelection cash haul has allowed the Republican Party to finesse its data program to better engage voters.

Still, in the age of social media and viral content, it is unclear whether a candidate needs to break fundraising records to gain traction. For instance, in 2016, Trump emerged from a crowded Republican primary where he was outspent by others — but gained attention through viral tweets and headline-grabbing debate moments.

And some longtime Democratic fundraisers say they have no doubt the money spigot will open as soon as the field settles. It just may take several more months for candidates to gain traction.

“People shouldn’t overreact to the totality of the numbers. What it does say is that there are a lot of high-quality people running for president this time,” said Tom Nides, former deputy secretary of state under Obama and a longtime Democratic fundraiser. “The Democrats — whoever is the nominee — will ultimately have plenty of money to raise and win against Trump. That I’m sure of.”

That means the stakes are higher for candidates to deliver a stellar performance at the first Democratic National Committee debate in June, their first high-profile chance at distinguishing themselves to voters.

There are signs the money is out there. Some freshman House Democrats raised significant amounts this quarter, according to early figures from their campaigns. For instance, Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.), who took office in January, said he has already raised $800,000 toward his reelection in 2020.

The first-quarter fundraising reports come at time of vigorous debate in the party over which donors should have the biggest say in the primaries.

‘It’s the metric, 100 percent.’ Democratic presidential hopefuls increasingly see small-dollar donations as a sign of viability.

In the past, candidates who drew the most money from wealthy donors early in the campaign were seen as the most competitive. This year, candidates are eschewing rich donors writing $2,800 checks and emphasizing online donors who give less than $200 at a time.

At this point in previous presidential cycles, bundlers — who collect big checks on behalf of presidential candidates — would pay to attend cocktail hours and lunches hosted by campaigns, and commit to raising millions of dollars for a primary candidate.

But now, several bundlers said, they are attending more free informational events to learn about the candidates.

One longtime Hillary Clinton fundraiser, who requested anonymity because he is still weighing whom to support, said he is receiving pitches from various campaigns and is attending events to meet candidates. He said he is looking for candidates who have passion, authenticity and policy chops, but is not in a rush to commit to helping one candidate.

“I helped Kamala [Harris], I sent emails about Cory [Booker], I’m helping a friend blast out her email for [John] Hickenlooper,” he said. “We’re just so catatonic with the daily horror of the Trump administration. We just want to win, but we can’t move yet until we know how we’re going to win.”

The vast majority of the party’s largest bundlers and fundraisers are in the same boat.

At a donor gathering last month in Miami, Messina asked 107 of the Democratic Party’s biggest bundlers whether they had committed to a presidential candidate. Just four raised their hand, he said.

“Everyone kind of started laughing, and I think it’s an assessment from the party that some people believe they moved too fast to anoint a candidate” in 2016, Messina said. “There are so many good candidates that people are going to wait to see who performs and who some of the breakout stars are.”

Longtime party bundlers who spent years raising money from the vast Clinton donor network, or were drawn to the star power of Obama, said they are not yet enthusiastic enough about any of the declared candidates.

“It’s really hard when you found the guy who you thought was terrific — and was terrific, had two outstanding elections — to find somebody else like that,” said one longtime Obama bundler who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private fundraising conversations.

The most likely choice for many Obama and Clinton fundraisers and donors is Biden. He has told some donors and fundraisers that he intends to announce his run by the end of the month.

But even then, they question whether Biden would be able to survive a primary contest, noting that his four-decade political career poses both an asset and a liability and citing recent allegations by women that he touched them inappropriately.

“Three to four weeks ago, all of us were thinking Biden was a safe bet. But then he had this Creepy Joe Biden, sniffing-hair-and-kissing-heads thing. That’s a cautionary tale for big Democratic fundraisers,” the Clinton bundler said. “The Biden issue shows the dangers of jumping on board with a candidate early.”