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Small-dollar donors reshape Democratic race

Small-dollar donors reshape Democratic race
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Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPBS White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor to moderate 'Washington Week' Pressure builds for Biden to back vaccine patent waivers Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSchumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Warren book reflects on losing 2020 bid: 'Painful' MORE (D-Mass.) have reshaped the traditional model for financing presidential campaigns, using vast networks of small donors to propel themselves to the top ranks of Democratic fundraisers.

That reality became clear in recent days after the two leading progressive candidates announced third-quarter fundraising hauls that trounced those of their top rivals.

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They have eschewed the high-dollar fundraising circuit since early on in their campaigns, a bet once considered risky given the outsize influence wealthy donors and bundlers have long held in presidential politics, but one that appears to have paid off.

Sanders’s campaign announced last week that it had raised $25.3 million in the past three months, the highest quarterly total reported of any Democratic presidential hopeful to date. Warren’s campaign trails him only narrowly, with a $24.6 million quarterly haul.

The staggering fundraising figures reflect the sway that progressives hold in the Democratic primary contest and their determination to nominate one of their own after President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud DOJ asks for outside lawyer to review Giuliani evidence MORE’s victory over a more moderate Democrat, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights Hillary Clinton: Biden less 'constrained' than Clinton and Obama due to prior administration Biden's unavoidable foreign policy crisis MORE, in 2016.

“We lost in 2016 partly because the Democratic establishment and Democratic establishment money nominated a losing candidate,” said Jonathan Tasini, a national surrogate for Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“Now, jump forward several years, all those voters understand you can’t nominate the same kind of candidate. But to have an alternative, you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Whether small-dollar contributions are enough on their own to fund a campaign capable of going head to head with Trump’s cash-flush operation in 2020 remains an open question. The president, together with the Republican National Committee, raised $125 million in the past three months alone.

In a nod to that reality, Warren has already signaled that she may not stick to her ban on high-dollar fundraisers if she wins the Democratic nomination, asserting in an interview on MSNBC earlier this year that Democrats should not pursue a policy of “unilateral disarmament” when it comes to raising money for the general election.

“We gotta go into these fights and we gotta be willing to win these fights,” she said at the time.

Sanders, on the other hand, appears poised to stick to his grassroots fundraising pledge. Faiz Shakir, his campaign manager, said last week that Sanders was “the only candidate 100 percent funded by grassroots donations – both in the primary and in the general.”

But Rufus Gifford, the finance director for former President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said that the eventual nominee will likely have to turn to big-ticket events and joint fundraisers with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) if they hope to compete in the general election.

“Whoever is the presumptive nominee, at that point, will start raising money with the DNC, which means that the ticket prices for events get much higher and the audience that you’re going to get much larger,” Gifford said. “I don’t see how you close the door to high-dollar fundraising in the general.”

For now, Sanders’s and Warren’s third-quarter hauls more than a year out from Election Day are, for the most part, on par with those of past Democratic presidential hopefuls.

During the same period in 2007, then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Never underestimate Joe Biden Afghanistan withdrawal: Trump fumbles, Biden scores MORE (D-Ill.), raised $20.6 million. And in the third quarter of 2015, as Clinton pursued the Democratic nomination, she reported raising $29.4 million, federal campaign finance filings show.

Obama, in particular, touted strong support from small-dollar donors. But what sets Warren and Sanders apart is their avoidance of big-ticket fundraisers altogether.

One benefit to leaning on small donors is that they can continue to give month after month, unlike those who contribute the maximum amount of $2,800 per election at once, leaving candidates with a steadier stream of cash flowing into their campaigns. Sanders’s campaign boasted last week that 99.9 percent of its donors have not yet hit the contribution limit and can donate again.

“We’re talking about $10 or $20 donations. We’re not talking about maxing out,” said Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America. “It’s something that people do repeatedly throughout the year, many, many, many times.”

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The small-dollar strategy stands in contrast with that of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCensus results show White House doubling down on failure Poll: Americans back new spending, tax hikes on wealthy, but remain wary of economic impact True immigration reform requires compromise from both sides of the aisle MORE and other top-tier candidates, who have been less reluctant to attend high-dollar fundraisers. In the third quarter alone, Biden held more than 40 fundraisers and donor events.

And while his campaign has touted strong grassroots support, Biden’s average donation size was $44, his campaign said, notably higher than that of Sanders and Warren. He ultimately finished the quarter with a $15.2 million fundraising total, down from about $22 million in the second quarter of the year.

Two other top-tier fundraisers who have courted traditional donors, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisAlabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Never underestimate Joe Biden Prosecuting the Flint water case MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBusiness groups target moderate Democrats on Biden tax plans Biden plugs infrastructure with a personal favorite: Amtrak CDC says cruises could begin in July MORE, also reported raising less than in the second quarter. Harris pulled in $11.6 million over the past three months, down from $11.8 million in the second quarter, while Buttigieg raised $19.1 million, after topping the field with $24.8 million in the previous quarter.

Biden’s allies downplayed concerns about his fundraising numbers, arguing that he had been off the campaign trail for years before launching his presidential bid and has not had the time to build out a network of small donors to the same degree as Warren or Sanders.

“The bottom line is, Biden has not developed to the extent that Bernie Sanders has a network of online contributors who are willing to send him $10 a month,” said Dick Harpootlian, a prominent Biden supporter and donor in South Carolina. “He’s only been doing it for six months. Bernie’s been doing it for years.”

What’s more, Harpootlian said, many traditional donors who have sat on the sidelines while the primary plays out are poised to weigh in soon, especially as Biden faces increasingly aggressive attacks from Trump, who is now facing an impeachment inquiry for his efforts to pressure foreign governments to investigate Biden and his family.

“More people who haven’t weighed in are weighing in now, because of Trump focusing so heavily on Biden,” Harpootlian said. “We’re going to have a hell of a quarter this next quarter.”