Big-money Democratic donors have jumped off the sidelines of the presidential race, and three candidates are the clear winners of their support: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris.
Each of those three candidates received more than 220 donations from top fundraisers who helped raise at least $100,000 — and sometimes many multiples more — for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign or at least $50,000 for Barack Obama in 2012, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission data. Members of this group of nearly 2,000 bundlers have tapped their personal networks in the past to collectively raise tens of millions of dollars for Democratic campaigns.
But while top Democratic fundraisers donated more money in the second quarter of 2019 than in the slow first three months of the year, many are no closer to choosing a single candidate: Close to 40 percent of the 810 bundlers who have donated to a 2020 Democrat have given to more than one candidate.
And while the Democratic field has largely fought to be the party of small-dollar donors in 2020, Biden, Buttigieg and Harris in particular have hustled for bundler support behind closed doors during the early months of the campaign.
“They’ve asked for help, they’ve asked for support, they’ve asked you to co-host events. They’ve asked for introductions to others,” said Rufus Gifford, former finance director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, who has donated to Harris, Biden and several other candidates.
“Electability is the most important thing. We just want a candidate that can beat Trump. You invest in candidates that are delivering as a candidate, or that polling tells you has a good shot to beat Trump,” Gifford said.
Two candidates in the Democratic primary, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have eschewed the help of big-dollar fundraisers and still placed in the top four in fundraising last quarter thanks to massive participation from small donors online. But donations from wealthy individuals are a significant factor in powering the campaigns of Biden, Buttigieg and Harris, who each raised millions of dollars in checks of $2,800 apiece, the maximum amount allowed under federal law, during the most recent fundraising quarter.
Few high-dollar donors have contributed to Warren and Sanders, despite their top spots in the polls — though some are increasingly curious about Warren’s policy-forward platform.
“The main issue with [Warren] is that she hasn’t been doing events, and I’m not saying this on behalf of myself, but I think for some people having that opportunity to meet her is really important,” said Dale Schroedel, a political organizer and former Clinton fundraiser based in San Francisco, and one of about 40 Democratic bundlers who have donated to Warren so far. “So they don’t give if they don’t have that opportunity.”
This election will test whether the old method of raising money through big fundraisers is still a recipe for success when employed in combination with online fundraising from the Democratic Party’s small-dollar donors.
In 2016 and 2018, candidates like Sanders and Beto O’Rourke raised huge sums of cash and generated enthusiasm online, a strategy Warren is now trying to seize by eschewing big-money events and raising money exclusively from small-dollar donors. But not every politician can catch fire with the party’s grassroots.
“Biden has yet to prove that he can muster the kind of new donor and energy that has been fueling the Democratic Party since 2015,” said one Democratic operative who was involved in the 2016 elections. “A coronation by bundlers shouldn’t give anyone a lot of confidence in any of these candidates.”
Biden — who entered the race in late April — received the most donations from the fundraisers, collecting checks from 253 of them. He raised $8.3 million of his $22 million total for the quarter from donors giving smaller amounts of $200 or less.
Overall, 42 percent of the 1,923 total former bundlers for Clinton and Obama — a group tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics — have given at least one donation to a candidate this cycle. Harris, who had the most support from this group of any candidate during the first quarter, collected donations from 70 new major donors during the second quarter for a total of 246.
And Buttigieg, the previously little-known mayor who has caught fire with big-money supporters, brought in donations from 224 of the fundraisers — helping him raise $24.9 million last quarter, the most of any Democratic contender.
There’s also overlap among the candidates giving to Biden, Buttigieg and Harris: 129 of the fundraisers gave money to at least two of the three, and 21 donated to all three of them.
After this top tier of candidates, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is the Democrat who received donations from the most bundlers. Booker has raised money from 152 fundraisers so far during this election cycle. While 39 of the bundlers donated to Warren, seven have given to Sanders’ campaign so far.
Though he was virtually unknown at the beginning of the year, Buttigieg held dozens of fundraisers across the country throughout the spring in wealthy enclaves and often received rock-star support from big names like actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has given only to Buttigieg this cycle and is set to hold a fundraiser for him in July.
Some fundraisers said they had given to Buttigieg with long-term high hopes for the mayor — but little belief that he would clinch the nomination this time.
“People continue to be intrigued by Mayor Pete and like his voice and perspective in the debate. Many know that it’s unlikely he will be the Democratic nominee but are happy to invest in a compelling personality who has a 40-year career ahead of him,” said Michael Kempner, a New York-based Democratic fundraiser who has donated to Buttigieg, Harris and other candidates. “He has a brilliant future in national politics.”
Chris Abele, a Democratic fundraiser and chairman of the board of directors for the pro-LGBTQ organization Victory Fund, said he remains a “Pete believer” and will do “whatever else I can” to help his campaign.
"I don’t want a president that is overly weighting too much of a decision on what the last 24 hours of the news cycle was,” Abele said.
Biden, meanwhile, has deep ties to many Obama and Clinton bundlers, some of whom served as ambassadors and in other posts in the Obama administration.
Joe Falk, a longtime Democratic fundraiser based in South Florida who is exclusively supporting Biden, said he was not bothered by Biden’s performance in the first Democratic debate — when he and Harris clashed over busing — and will continue backing Biden’s campaign.
“I’m an observer, not a casual voter. In totality, my No. 1 issue is: Which Democrat can best defeat the current administration? What candidate can continue to win U.S. House seats in Florida?” Falk said.
While the field of candidates could continue to shift, the fundraising success of Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders and Warren is likely to draw even more donors to their campaigns in the coming months — and make top fundraisers increasingly wary about the viability of competing campaigns that are not bringing in as much cash, Gifford said.
“Could you still see one candidate have a breakout performance a la Warren? Sure, stranger things have happened in politics,” Gifford said. “But right now, you have to believe the tiers are pretty well set.
“If you’re spending more money than you’re raising, you’ll have to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘This is not my election.’”
James Arkin, Scott Bland, Rishika Dugyala, Zach Montellaro, Steven Shepard, Michael Stratford and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.