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Will Warren’s ban on big donations backfire?

Senator Elizabeth Warren in Iowa last month. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press/Associated Press

DECORAH, Iowa — Standing in front of 200 voters in a packed Iowa storefront, Senator Elizabeth Warren was laying on a little guilt. Having sworn off private fund-raisers with millionaires, she explained, she was putting her campaign in the hands of regular voters like them.

“It’s a big bet on Iowa democracy, that we can do this together, that we can do it through $5 and $25 donations and whatever people can afford,” Warren said, before urging her audience to go to her website and “sign up.”

It was an unsubtle hint: Give!

The swing through Iowa was the first road test for Warren’s big, early bet that she can make up in volume what she may lose by eschewing closed-door events for high rollers. Her high-minded pledge to resist the grip of big money on politics is also an attempt to juice her grass-roots support, distinguish herself from the large and growing field of Democratic presidential contenders, and perhaps to temper expectations ahead of fund-raising filings later in the spring.

“I’m leaving money on the table, there’s no doubt about that, but I want to run a campaign that’s based on principles and ideas, not on how much money I can scoop up from people who’ve already made it big,” Warren told reporters during her Iowa swing late last week, making a dig at opponents engaged in more traditional fund-raising.


Warren’s vow has turned heads among Democrats, including Iowa voters who listened to her pitch. It seemed to some a breathtaking gamble in a race that could see candidates spending $100 million on the early states alone. There are many ways to break out of the pack of hopefuls, but all of them traditionally involve gobs of campaign cash for staff, media, technology, and travel.

What’s more, Warren has been conspicuously silent about how she is actually doing with grass-roots donors, even as other candidates report multimillion-dollar hauls. That has fueled questions about whether her presidential run is drawing the kind of enthusiasm from donors that made her a top fund-raiser in the Senate.


The campaigns of Senators Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders boasted that they raised $1.5 million and $6 million, respectively, during their first 24 hours in the race, and even lesser-known Governor Jay Inslee of Washington bragged on Monday that he gathered $1 million in the opening days of his campaign. Warren, however, has said nothing of the sort. Instead, her campaign has sent e-mails to supporters expressing worry about meeting financing goals and admitting she is unlikely to be the top money-getter in the field. The next update on her fund-raising may not come until candidates must file financial reports in April.

“If you’re kind of mum about it, things probably aren’t going so great,” said Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Candidates can have their reasons for staying quiet about strong fund-raising totals, too, and Warren’s campaign did tell supporters it met its undisclosed fund-raising goal by the end of February.

Warren shows no inclination to address such concerns directly. When she was asked in Iowa if her fund-raising was lagging, Warren changed the subject. “I’m just delighted to have this chance to get out and talk about what’s broken in this country and what we can do about it,” she said, adding, “Lots of people have contributed both money, and time and I’m deeply grateful for that.”


David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack Obama, was also unable to get an answer out of her on the topic in a recent interview. “I’m watching a very, very disciplined candidate deliver her message despite my best efforts,” he said.

So far, the only peek into Warren’s fund-raising operation shows she raised at least $299,000 on Dec. 31, the day she announced her exploratory campaign — much less, it seems, than Harris or Sanders when they jumped in. She does, however, have a cool $11 million left over from her Senate reelection campaign.

Expectations had been high for Warren because, as a senator, she has been a fund-raising juggernaut. She raised $42.5 million for her first election in 2012, and another $35 million between then and her reelection bid last year. She became a sought-after surrogate who helped Democrats around the country bring in campaign cash.

“I remember times where she would go on Rachel Maddow on an issue around the campaign — we’d send an e-mail out and we’d raise 2, 3, or $400,000 dollars just from that appearance,” said Doug Rubin, a top adviser to Warren’s 2012 campaign, who said he thought Warren’s pledge would excite new donors and bring them into the fold.

Fueled by the ease of online giving and frustration with President Trump, grass-roots and small-dollar fund-raising helped to power Democratic gains in the midterms and could become a potent source of campaign cash for presidential candidates. But with more than a dozen candidates now competing for the same bursts of attention and money, relying on grass-roots funding alone may not be a sure bet.


Warren — who also has sworn off donations from political action committees and lobbyists — could have expected to have considerable success in raising money from wealthy donors, although probably not on Wall Street where she is anathema to many. She raked in serious cash at Hollywood receptions hosted by Ben Affleck, J.J. Abrams, Norman Lear, and other donors in past campaigns. Just last month, Warren helped pull in more than $400,000 for the New Hampshire Democratic Party by headlining the very kind of fancy dinner she’s now eschewing for her campaign.

Still, her network of big donors is likely sparser than candidates who have been in politics longer, said Vincent Frillici, who was national finance director for former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Frillici says it’s possible Warren saw it as “potentially politically useful or potentially a benefit to her online fund-raising effort to jettison or shun” the heavy hitters.

But such a strategy puts her squarely on the turf where Sanders already showed immense strength during his 2016 presidential run. A New York Times analysis of campaign finance data estimated that 2.1 million donors gave to Sanders between 2012 and 2018, compared to 343,000 for Warren in the same period.


Warren has not weaned herself off big donations altogether — just the private events for high rollers and call time that candidates of both parties use to reel them in.

Warren says her pledge does not extend into the general election. But in Iowa, even voters disgusted with the pernicious influence of money in politics wondered if Warren was needlessly disadvantaging herself ahead of a possible matchup with Trump.

“I think it’s laudable, but I worry that in our system of politics, I hope that doesn’t mean she’s going to get stomped out,” said Sandra Evans, a retired high school teacher who went to see Warren speak Friday morning in Dubuque.

In an election where voters are fixated on a candidate’s ability to beat the president, any hint of weakness in a campaign could backfire.

“I’m old school that if you don’t have the money, you can’t run,” said Jerry Lynch, 74, a former chairman of the operations committee for the Iowa Democratic Party. “When you get swamped and bombarded on TV and you can’t buy ads — I don’t know.”

But Warren’s allies say the move allows her to continue winning the “ideas primary” among Democrats, and will pay off long term among voters who are deeply skeptical of big donor influence in politics. In fund-raising e-mails, Warren’s campaign has derided unnamed candidates for spending too much time talking to big contributors, and she has suggested skipping fund-raisers gives her more time to pack in campaign events and house parties, where she often sticks around to pose for photos with every voter who wants one. She’s also been calling her small donors and thanking them on the phone — conversations she videos and shares on social media.

“It sets her apart immediately,” said Nathan Thompson, the chairman of the Winneshiek County Democrats, in Decorah, even though, he noted, Sanders has also touted a small-dollar-focused fund-raising strategy.

Mark Green, a former New York politician who held a fund-raiser for Warren in his Manhattan home in 2018, said Warren’s “gutsy” move may not pay off for months, when the collective weight of her positions help her stand out in a crowded field. He stressed that her money numbers right now are not what’s important, but rather how she performs over time.

“She has a year now to show that doing good and doing well are not inconsistent,” Green said.

Victoria McGrane contributed to this story. Jess Bidgood can be reached at jess.bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.