Can Elizabeth Warren win the primary without holding fundraisers for the rich?

What the left-wing Massachusetts senator’s anti-big money stance tells us about the power and limits of small donations.

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Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and “dust bowl radical” running for president in 2020, recently announced that during the primaries she will not be hosting receptions and fundraisers for wealthy donors, will not arrange one-on-one meetings with them and will not be doing “call time”, which is when candidates spend hours phoning rich donors.

That’s not quite the same as saying she won’t take their money (and it doesn’t preclude her campaign staff from calling wealthy donors on her behalf) – but it’s bold for any candidate to say they won’t actively pursue funding from a group that commonly contributes more than half of candidates’ funding.

The magazine Politico described her announcement as “the most aggressive anti-big money stance taken by a candidate in modern political history”.

Consider, for instance, that even though Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid reshaped America’s political landscape by proving it’s possible to fund a campaign mostly through small donations, he also received considerable support from wealthier donors. According to figures compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank, large donations (of $1000 or more) made up 18 per cent of his funding from individuals during the primary campaign. For Hillary Clinton, this figure was 55 per cent.

Almost all of the Democrats running in the presidential primaries have responded to public discontent over the influence of big business in politics by refusing corporate PAC money. Yet, as Michael Malbin, CFI’s director, pointed out when we spoke on the phone, corporate PAC money is such a negligible source of overall funding that the gesture is largely symbolic. “It’s like saying ‘I won’t have caviar tomorrow,’” he said.

Warren’s announcement is different. She’s banking that her ideological purity could boost support among small donors, and that this will outweigh any losses she might incur by not hobnobbing with the wealthy. It’s a way for her to burnish her left-wing credentials and stand out, among the more than dozen candidates who have already entered the race. But it could cost her dearly.

“You can think of Senator Warren’s gambit as an effort to engage in “product differentiation” in a very crowded Democratic field. Like Bernie Sanders, she has built her political brand by criticizing the wealthy and Wall Street. This gambit will appeal to “Main Stream” contributors, though it is not clear if it will be enough to get them to give to her versus, say, Sanders,” David Primo, an associate professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, told me.

In the 24 hours after Sanders announced he was running for president, his campaign raised almost $6 million. According to Politico, Warren raised around $300,000 in the 24 hours after her announcement. She has acknowledged in her fundraising emails that she has not met her online targets.

Is the distance she’s creating between herself and wealthier donors going to send out a powerful enough message to win over more small donors, one wonders? When people worry about big money in politics, they probably aren’t primarily thinking about the people who give a few thousand dollars ($2,800 is the maximum donation that an individual can give to a single candidate).

In some ways, Warren is well positioned to make this gamble. As Andrew Mayersohn, committees researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, observed, Warren’s radical announcement does not represent a radical change in her policy. The research group has noted that Warren spent less than $50,000 on fundraising events in 2018, which is a low for a sitting senator.

Warren has also left open the possibility that she could change her position should she win the primary and find herself competing against a Republican for the presidency. At that stage, not actively pursuing bigger donations could be madness. Yet Primo argued this could still pose a potential risk to Warren’s campaign. “If she does end up holding fundraisers for wealthy donors as the Democratic nominee, she may alienate her core supporters and provide Republicans with an opening to paint her as a ‘flip-flopper’ among the general electorate,” he said.

Even so, her stance is remarkable. Even a decade ago, this kind of message would be unthinkable. It was simply not possible to fund a campaign using mainly small donors, because there wasn’t the technological infrastructure required to raise funds from hundreds of thousands of individual donors.

Many Americans may be right to be wary of the outsized influence that wealthy donors and corporations play in their political system – but it’s also never been easier for ordinary Americans to contribute financially to causes they care about.

While Warren’s position makes sense given her political ideology, it’s not only candidates on the left who have the ability to harness the collective power of small donors. During the primaries, donors giving less than $200 contributed 63 per cent of Donald Trump’s funding from individuals – a larger proportion even than Sanders – demonstrating that even politicians with extensive links to big business can inspire a groundswell of popular support.

Sometimes small donors are drawn to a candidates’ force of vision or personality – as with Barack Obama – but “much more commonly they are attracted to contrast,” the CFI’s Malbin said. Ordinary Americans are inspired to donate to a political race “they see as significant, when they see a clear difference between the two candidates and feel deeply that one of the candidates stands more for what they want than the other candidate”. They are usually also more likely to give during a general election, rather than in the primaries. Which suggests that regardless of who is running on the Democratic side, small donors are likely to be inspired to contribute to the race to remove Trump – or indeed to keep the president in office. Amid all the uncertainty one thing is clear, the 2020 elections will offer voters a choice between two very different candidates.

For Warren, the challenge may now be whether her fundraising announcement has done enough to distinguish herself as substantially different from the other Democrats running for president in 2020. If she succeeds in winning the primary, it will send out the hugely powerful signal that American politicians do not need to court the support of the wealthy and big business in order to succeed. And even if she fails, she may still have raised the bar for what a progressive fundraising strategy can – and, some might argue, should – look like.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.