Behind grass-roots talk, big checks remain lifeblood for 2020 presidential hopefuls

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) addresses labor leaders at a dinner April 1 in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

In a presidential race where almost every candidate claims to be supported by small donors and immune from the ills of big money in politics, the first round of campaign finance disclosure statements has made clear that some are much closer to the grass roots than others.

While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders can boast that more than 80% of his hefty campaign account comes from donations of less than $200, other big-name candidates are nowhere close. Among others in the Democratic field, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker only managed to collect about 16% of the $5 million he raised from such small donors. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand hovered at around the same ratio.

California Sen. Kamala Harris could claim just a third of the $12 million she raised came in increments of less than $200.


Kamala Harris is the early favorite among Hollywood donors in the 2020 race »

The reports were a reminder that even in this era where small donors contribute an unprecedented share of the money raised by candidates, the lifeblood for many campaigns remains big checks. And they continue to roll in.

The disclosure statements also revealed two big reasons for candidates to continue to tap big donors: President Trump raised roughly $30 million in the first quarter — not a record sum for an incumbent, but enough to build his war chest to a record size for an incumbent this early in the campaign. That’s a reminder that he’ll have huge resources to draw on in his reelection bid.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has disavowed high-end fundraisers and corporate cash, was able to raise only a third of the amount Sanders brought in. She has been burning through the cash at an unsustainable rate, spending $5.2 million of the $6 million she raised.

Much of the money went to build the sizable infrastructure — one of the biggest staffs in the field — that Warren has put together in states with early contests. But she is lagging in the polls behind candidates who have spent dimes to every dollar she has invested.


Most notable is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has spent less than 10% of the $7 million his campaign raised in the first quarter. Buttigieg, the openly gay Navy veteran, has rapidly ascended from obscurity into one of the nation’s most buzzed-about politicians.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the hottest thing in politics. Can it last? »

He managed to raise nearly two-thirds of his money from under-$200 donors. Among those who wrote Buttigieg checks were actors Mandy Moore, Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Whitford. He also got a donation from a less expected source — James Murdoch, the son of conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Susie Tompkins Buell, one of the Bay Area’s biggest fundraisers, was so impressed by Buttigieg that she threw an event to raise money for the candidate even after announcing that she was supporting Harris.

Harris kept her spending to about 35% of the money she has raised. Among her donors were Ben Affleck, Elizabeth Banks, Eva Longoria and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

While Sanders had many more donors in California than Harris, the state’s junior senator took more big checks there than the Vermonter. Nearly a third of the money Harris raised came from Californians donating more than $200.

Among the other candidates who are off to a relatively strong financial start is former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who spent less than a third of the $9.4 million he raised during the quarter. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar raked in $5.2 million and spent $1.8 million.

Other candidates are struggling. Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, raised just $1.3 million; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, $2 million.

The most an individual is permitted to contribute in the primaries is $2,800, but some candidates are asking big donors for double that amount — setting half of it aside to be used in the general election, should the candidate win the nomination.

At the same time that candidates are repudiating the corrosive effects of money in politics and disavowing donations from corporate political action committees, they are recruiting titans of industry to serve as bundlers for their campaigns, on call to tap networks of wealthy friends from the ranks of Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Law and Hollywood.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Who’s running for president and who’s not »

Warren’s alternative approach still could work for her, if she can step up the pace of her fundraising. The senator will be buoyed, for now, by more than $10 million that was sitting in her Senate campaign account when she jumped into the race. She has transferred it over to her primary campaign. Gillibrand will also be falling back on cash from her Senate account to keep her operation moving forward.

Sanders faces a different dilemma. He has to figure out where to spend his abundance of cash. At $15.7 million, Sanders ended the quarter with more in the bank than any of his rivals. More importantly, the fast clip at which he is raising money suggests the gap could grow rapidly as others spend down the reserves they had in other accounts.

That money could prove crucial to competing in a state like California, where the cost of campaigning is immense. Candidates will face tough decisions about whether they can afford to invest in the Golden State at the same time they are making their final push to win over voters in the crucial states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Early primary voting will begin in California next year just as Iowans head to their caucuses.

It all could intensify pressure on some candidates to seek help in an unpalatable place: super PACs. Almost all of the candidates pledged to reject any help from these organizations, which can funnel unlimited money into electing them.

But there is nothing in the law that prohibits their friends and supporters from launching PAC efforts, regardless of a candidate’s publicly expressed wishes. And veterans of presidential campaigns predict that is what may happen this fall.