Wealthy donors were a big part of how Barack Obama became president. Employees of Goldman Sachs were rivaled only by those of the University of California in powering his record-breaking fundraising totals in 2008. As the insurgent candidate wrestled control of the Democratic Party from the establishment—including frontrunner Hillary Clinton—that year, his inspiring speeches and consistent opposition to the Iraq War were obviously defining elements of a historic candidacy. But so were the eye-popping donations. He broke and then broke again the records for fundraising in a given month, setting the tone for the general election against John McCain with a $66 million haul in August of that year. And while small-dollar donors and the activist base they symbolized were instrumental in his success, Obama also glad-handed at plenty of fancy, exclusive receptions for rich donors both during and after his 2008 victory.
For Democrats hoping to follow in his footsteps, that path toward victory now looks a lot less appealing.
When Bernie Sanders ran for president four years ago, he made a point of largely shunning traditional high-dollar fundraisers, insisting he didn't need or want billionaires' money. It also might have been true that he couldn't get it: The self-declared democratic socialist from Vermont wanted to break up big banks like Goldman, hike taxes on the rich, and dismantle some of the late capitalist infrastructure that he argued was behind soaring income inequality and a broken, for-profit healthcare system. Sanders actually did have the occasional supporter on Wall Street, but with populist anger at Obama's failure to prosecute bankers behind the financial crisis still raging, and the lingering effects of the mortgage crisis and Great Recession still tangible, Sanders could forgo the most lucrative fundraising events and rely on a steady stream of mostly online support from fans. That strategy already seems to be panning out for him this go-around: Sanders raised nearly $6 million in the first 24 hours after announcing his 2020 candidacy last week.
Now Elizabeth Warren is making a point of joining him on the high road. As the New York Times reported Monday, the 2020 contender announced she would skip private, VIP-style fundraisers. She also plans to avoid the "call time," the term for the common practice of politicians working the phones to plead for money from rich people.
"That means no fancy receptions or big money fund-raisers only with people who can write the big checks,” Warren said in an email to her fans. “It means that wealthy donors won’t be able to purchase better seats or one-on-one time with me at our events."
This makes sense given that Warren has for years positioned herself as opponent of the ultra-wealthy and Wall Street.
"Her ceasing VIP fundraisers with mega donors is consistent with the messaging she's been using in campaign, and at this early point in the race, the energy is focused on generating excitement from the base and distinguishing each candidate's campaign from the rest of the pack," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the influence watchdog the Center for Responsive Politics.
As Krumholz noted, it's also fair to assume she isn't actually passing on all that much money here; the party's wealthiest donors might be predisposed to back, say, Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand, or Cory Booker, or (if and when he gets in) Joe Biden. All of them have been dinged by the left for relatively neoliberal stances on some issues, even if they have also inched leftward and embraced policies like Medicare for all and the Green New Deal to stay abreast of activist orthodoxy. (Gillibrand also declared she wasn't going to take money from corporate PACs, though she'll apparently still take money from individuals connected to the finance industry.)
Which brings us to what this is really about: Warren is sending a message, like the one Sanders has been sending for years now, to the party's most engaged partisans. After all, her move came just a week after the Times reported that a coterie of her rivals, including Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown, and Cory Booker, "auditioned" before super-wealthy Obama donors, hoping to win their support.
It remains to be seen how much the larger universe of Democratic voters actually cares about who a candidate's donors are. But polling for years now has tended to find large majorities of Americans think the government is too focused on the needs of the rich and not enough on the poor and middle-class, and that money holds too much sway in their democracy.
Warren and Sanders are helping lay down a marker for their competitors, who will have to defend their own practices of holding fundraisers and taking money from industries the Democratic base isn't a fan of. Fundraising has been a consistent issue among those involved in Democratic politics, with a contentious fight over donations from the oil and gas industry unfolding last year in the Democratic National Committee. (The DNC ultimately decided to accept such donations.) In 2008, Obama made a show of skipping out on corporate PAC and lobbyist money, though he obviously wasn't actually missing out on all that much. In 2016, Clinton seemed to be on the side of accepting donations from anyone who would give them, leading to attacks from Trump about her family foundation's work and her paid speeches before audiences of bankers—even as he soaked up dark money donations from self-interested financial titans.
Whether Trump's attacks were fair, this time around the Democratic nominee may be someone who rejects the whole system of donors that Clinton was enmeshed in. If nothing else, the party is set for a real debate—with Warren and Sanders in particular poised to pressure their rivals—about who gets a voice in their government, and how much that voice costs them.
"It's a battle," Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, VICE contributor, and critic of the party's coziness with entrenched financial power, said in an email when I asked if Warren's move meant Obama donors were losing control of the party. "To paraphrase Churchill: It isn't the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning."
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