(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden’s campaign was keeping its latest fund-raising numbers close to the vest. Then, on Thursday, the former vice president broke the news himself, putting the campaign on the defensive.
At a private fundraiser in Palo Alto, California, Biden said his campaign had raised just over $15 million in the third quarter, far behind Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom raised more than $24 million. His total was $4 million less than Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
For the Democratic front-runner who spent eight years as vice president and 35 years in the Senate, the figure raised concerns about his durability in an increasingly competitive primary contest. Biden’s sizable lead in nationwide and early-state polls has been whittled down as Warren’s methodically risen to a statistical tie.
Biden, 76, now faces other headwinds, having been thrust into the eye of the impeachment storm surrounding President Donald Trump’s efforts to coax foreign countries into investigating discredited claims about business dealings by Biden’s son, Hunter. Although there’s no evidence of wrongdoing on Biden’s part, the president is keeping the allegations in the forefront of the race.
“He lives to fight another day,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist unaligned with any presidential campaign. He added, “There’s a real problem here in that he appears to be losing momentum with the rise of Elizabeth Warren. There’s still plenty of time but this comes at a time when the president and his campaign are doing everything they can to smear him, and I’m sure they would have liked to have a bigger war chest to get ready for Iowa.”
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The Biden campaign and its allies say its fundraising is more than enough to continue building out its operation. The campaign also said that its average donation for the quarter was $44, that 56% of those contributing in July-September gave for the first time, and that 98% of donations were under $200.
“If you had gone back to March and said we raised $36 million through the first two quarters, we would have been thrilled,” said Pete Kavanaugh, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.
Warren and Sanders have sworn off private fundraisers and found success in small-dollar, online donations. Biden has spent the bulk of his time lately holding small gatherings of wealthy donors in the most glamorous ZIP codes in the nation.
In the final week of the quarter, for example, Biden held 10 private fundraisers and only made two public appearances -- he talked to reporters about Trump’s communications with Ukraine, and stumped in Las Vegas.
“I just don’t think that’s how democracy works anymore, and I sure don’t think that’s how it’s going to work in 2020,” Warren told reporters at an event in San Diego on Thursday, when asked about traditional fund-raising focused on the deep-pocketed few.
“It’s going to be about getting out and building a grassroots movement. And sure, it takes money to do that. But the way we’re doing it, in $5 and $25 contributions, and the kind of people who showed up here tonight, and volunteered that they’ll be there on a weekly basis -- we’re going to build that grassroots movement that’s going to be our competitive advantage,” Warren said.
Biden’s never been a prolific fundraiser and his third-quarter haul is more than he raised for both of his prior presidential bids combined. In part, that’s because he was chairman of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, Democratic fundraisers say: neither are donor magnets like the panels that oversee taxes, spending and the financial system.
Given that history, Biden is doing well, said Ankit Desai, a Democratic bundler who raised money for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “The idea that these are disappointing numbers is rubbish,” he said. The key, Desai said, is having enough money to compete in the early contests.
“The top four candidates will have plenty of money,” he said, referring to Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden.
The third quarter, covering most of summer, is a tough time to raise money for candidates who rely on traditional, in-person events. In 2015, Clinton’s receipts in the period dropped to $29.9 million from $47.5 million in the prior three months, and Barack Obama saw a 35% drop in his fund-raising for the months of July to September in 2007.
Candidates focused on armies of online contributions don’t suffer the same slump -- Warren and Sanders both saw big increases in the third quarter.
Florida attorney John Morgan, who held a pricey fundraiser for Biden in May, says the former vice president lacks the appeal of his rivals to small-dollar donors because of his campaign’s message.
Sanders and Warren “are willing to make outlandish promises that have no chance in hell of becoming law,” Morgan said.
Pledging to spend trillions of dollars on free health care or forgiving student debt fires up online contributors, he said. “Biden can’t go down that road and he won’t lie to the American people,” Morgan said.
Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, said Biden will have enough money to compete for the entirety of the primary.
“Hillary spent a whole lot more money than Trump did in the general, and you know what that outcome was,” said Rendell, a Biden donor. “Jeb Bush spent the most money in the [2016 Republican] primary, and he faded. It’s not about how much money your opponents have. It’s whether you have the money to get all the way across. And Joe certainly will.”
--With assistance from Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.
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