Warren spends big on staff in high-stakes 2020 gamble

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHere are the potential candidates still eyeing 2020 bids Sanders unveils education plan that would ban for-profit charter schools Warren policy ideas show signs of paying off MORE (D-Mass.) is investing heavily in hiring staffers in some of the first primary and caucus states, placing a bet that such early organizing efforts will pay dividends when voting starts next year.

But that strategy comes with a big price tag.

Warren’s presidential campaign spent nearly $1.9 million in the first three months of 2019 to hire and retain more than 160 staffers, including many in crucial early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, campaign finance records show. Salaries alone cost the campaign roughly $1.2 million.

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The Massachusetts senator raised $6 million in the first quarter of the year, putting her in the middle of the pack of 2020 Democratic contenders.

But she spent roughly 87 cents of every dollar, giving her one of the highest burn rates of any candidate in the primary field.

Warren also transferred $10.4 million to her presidential campaign from her Senate committee, giving her operation somewhat of a financial cushion, albeit a temporary one.

The staff salaries, along with insurance and payroll taxes, accounted for roughly one third of the roughly $5.2 million Warren spent in the first quarter, her campaign finance filings show.

Those records, which cover the period from Jan. 1 to March 31, shed light on Warren’s primary strategy — one that relies heavily on establishing a campaign infrastructure early in the 2020 contest that will give her a near-perennial presence in the states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the nation’s first nominating votes.

Warren’s filings with the Federal Election Commission show 161 people on her payroll. By comparison, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHere are the potential candidates still eyeing 2020 bids Sanders unveils education plan that would ban for-profit charter schools Warren policy ideas show signs of paying off MORE (I-Vt.), who raised roughly three times as much as Warren in the first quarter, reported only 86 staffers on his payroll.

By staffing up early, Warren has managed to snag experienced campaign aides and advisers before her opponents.

In Iowa, for instance, she hired Brendan Summers, who in 2016 served as Sanders’s Iowa caucus director and national caucus director. And in New Hampshire, she scooped up Liz Wester, the state political director for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren policy ideas show signs of paying off Biden at campaign kickoff event: I don't have to be 'angry' to win Top Dem: Trump helps GOP erase enthusiasm gap; Ohio a big problem MORE’s 2016 White House bid.

Warren’s strategy comes with both risks and possible rewards.

“When you get a lot of troops on the ground in the early states, it makes a difference,” Scott Ferson, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, said. “You can’t be in all 99 counties in Iowa at the same time. You have to pick your battles, but she can pick quite a few of them.”

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While other candidates, like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg accuses Trump of 'paying lip service' to LGBT rights Warren policy ideas show signs of paying off Overnight Health Care — Presented by Campaign for Accountability — Momentum builds for federal laws enshrining abortion rights | Missouri lawmakers approve bill banning abortions at 8 weeks | Warren unveils plan to protect abortion rights MORE, have leaned on television appearances and viral social media moments to boost their profile, Warren has positioned herself as a policy buff by rolling out proposals on taxes, agriculture and, most recently, public land use.

By focusing on early organizing and policy issues, Warren appears to be taking a longer-term view toward campaigning, Ferson said.

“If you look at Buttigieg now, anybody would love to be in his position. But it’s risky,” Ferson said, warning that such media attention is often ephemeral and that candidates also need to focus on building out their campaign infrastructure.  

A similar strategy to Warren’s paid off in 2008 for former President Obama, whose early staffing and organizing efforts helped him triumph in the primary over more established Democrats, like Clinton.

But Obama’s fundraising haul in the first quarter of 2007 — $25.7 million — was significantly higher than the $6 million raised by Warren this year.

What’s more, Warren has vowed not to hold high-dollar fundraisers and is instead relying heavily on a stream of small-dollar donations to power her presidential bid.

One of the biggest financial challenges for Warren will be raising a steady enough stream of cash to support an already large operation and sustain her high burn rate.

“History is littered with campaigns that had burn rates like that,” Ferson said. “That’s putting everything on black. It’s a gamble.”