The view Wednesday night from the impeccably landscaped backyard of Sherry Lansing’s estate in Bel-Air, with its enormous pool and towering birds of paradise, suggested the old order of financing campaigns was fast reemerging in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Scores of well-to-do Angelenos shelled out $2,800 each for the privilege of
getting a photo with Joe Biden. They caught glimpses of Leonardo DiCaprio and mega-millionaire financier Richard C. Blum, and hung on every word as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Blum’s wife, patched in from Washington to fete the former vice president.
Soon after, Biden would be boasting that his campaign had raised $22 million in less than a week.
The scene at the home of the former Paramount Studios chief, though, hardly captured the reality on the ground in this race. This primary campaign upended virtually all of the old axioms about how money
— and proximity to it — influences races.
Biden dominated Super Tuesday despite not spending a dollar — or even showing up — in some of the big states he won handily.
A billionaire from New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, spent an unprecedented $552 million on an ad blitz and limped away with victories nowhere but in American Samoa. Bloomberg spent more than $130 on advertising for each vote he won on Super Tuesday. The cost per vote to Biden? Roughly 40 cents.
And Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who started her campaign announcing only grass-roots donors were welcome, ended it with the full-throated backing of the biggest, shadowiest super PAC to emerge in the contest — yet still lost everywhere.
“Not long ago, the press and pundits declared our campaign dead,” Biden, who bounced out of Super Tuesday the front-runner, told the overflow crowd of 350 donors at Lansing’s house.
One reason: The campaign was broke until this week.
The former vice president was outspent and out-organized in almost every state Tuesday. Bloomberg funneled money into the race faster than any candidate ever had, giving him supremacy over the airwaves almost everywhere.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also eclipsed Biden in resources across the electoral map, having raised $167 million in small donations through February, roughly twice what Biden collected.
So few donors were interested in Biden that even the marquee event at Lansing’s home wasn’t getting many takers when she started sending invitations in the gloomy days before Biden won the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.
The organizers had settled on an intimate gathering for 80 people in her living room. “Then South Carolina happened,” Lansing said Wednesday, introducing Biden to her guests. “The calls just kept coming in, over and over. It was like a deluge.”
Wednesday morning, after Biden won nine states from Maine to Texas, more people called. Even after moving the event outside, “we literally had to cut it off and tell everyone who called that we had actually reached full capacity” of about 350, she said. Money is also gushing into the super PAC supporting Biden, Unite the Country.
“We will do whatever is needed to support the vice president’s candidacy,” said supporter Andy Spahn, a Hollywood power broker who has long advised the political activity of industry figures such as Jeffrey Katzenberg. “We have been talking with the campaign this week about where we can make the biggest contribution or how we can make the biggest difference.”
It’s that kind of enthusiasm that helped the Biden campaign raise $22 million in five days, a haul he reported when he called into a fundraiser in Bethesda, Md., where some 130 donors had gathered Friday night.
The donors in Spahn’s orbit had earlier been hedging, spreading money to several viable candidates and holding back from writing big checks to super PACs. The shift by deep-pocketed donors once Biden started winning is netting a windfall for him.
“The last seven days have been by far our best seven days of the entire cycle,” said Steve Schale, an advisor to Unite the Country. He declined to say exactly how much the PAC has raised over the week, but said it was in the millions of dollars.
Even as the cash is now flowing fast, some reformers are pleased by the muted impact big wallets have had so far this year. They are particularly encouraged by Bloomberg’s flame-out.
“The takeaway is that if you are not cultivating grass-roots donors and you don’t have grass-roots support, your money alone will not buy you a viable campaign,” said Tiffany Muller, president of the advocacy group End Citizens United. “We don’t believe billionaires should be able to spend unlimited money. We think that is a huge problem in our democracy.”
Of course, Bloomberg’s billions may not disappear from this race. The former New York mayor is now considering putting his expensive campaign machine to work helping elect Biden.
Such moves are fraught with risks that didn’t exist in the recent past. More voters frown on big-money infusions than once did.
That’s a trend driven in large part by Sanders’ success funding a formidable national campaign entirely on 1.9 million individual donors making contributions averaging $21. Sanders’ proof that it could be done moved other candidates to swear off using super PACs and corporate money — and also to pledge support for comprehensive campaign finance reform if elected.
By this point in 2016, when the field of candidates jockeying in the GOP presidential primary was almost as crowded as it was this year on the Democratic side, super PACs and other independent groups had plowed more than $200 million into the race. That’s more than triple the outside spending in this cycle, according to End Citizens United.
“Are we disappointed super PACs have forced their way inside this primary? Obviously,” said Muller. “But even how long we were able to hold off super PACs in this race has made a substantial difference.”
Others are less impressed. Paul Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, said he saw the vows by candidates at the start of the race to disavow big money as more about messaging than substance.
“This is where we have been at in every cycle since super PACs were born,” he said. “I was skeptical of the promises at the outset. I thought whoever the Democratic nominee is will be supported by huge outside money.”
Even Sanders is getting help from outside groups. The super PAC affiliated with the National Nurses United union spent heavily on his behalf in 2016 and may do so again. And Common Cause has filed a federal complaint against the nonprofit Sanders helped found, Our Revolution, charging it with violating existing laws — weak as they are — requiring disclosure of donor identities and spending related to helping a candidate. The allegations are languishing at the Federal Election Commission, where vacancies on the board have left the agency for months without the quorum needed to act.
The biggest letdown to good-government groups may have come when the pro-Warren Persist PAC emerged. Anti-corruption was a centerpiece of Warren’s run, which ended when she withdrew from the race Thursday. Yet when she really needed help, the super PAC poured $14 million into the race to help her and refused to simultaneously reveal the identities of its donors. It is not legally required to disclose those names until March 20.
Warren did not disavow the group or its tactics. Instead, she argued that other candidates were being helped by outside money, so she had no choice.
The money ultimately did not help Warren. Yet analysts generally agree that the flip-flop of her position on super PACs did not hurt her bid.
Despite all the promises of reform, this is not an election where voters are looking for absolute purity. Not when the eventual nominee will be going up against an incumbent expected to push every fundraising and spending boundary.
Getting big money out of politics is “an issue that is important and people care about,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, “but I don’t think it is a motivating factor, especially not in this particular election. Defeating Trump is the primary motivation.”
Halper reported from Washington and Mehta from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.