WASHINGTON — As her fund-raising slowed to a trickle in mid-January, Senator Elizabeth Warren needed attention and campaign money, and she needed both fast.
She traveled to Puerto Rico and then announced the first big policy proposal of her campaign: a new tax on the ultrawealthy. The idea generated days of headlines and a spat with billionaire Howard Schultz — and coincided with a bump in larger donations to close out the month.
She’s repeated the move frequently since then: a splashy policy rollout that helps her grab headlines and appears to generate a small fund-raising spike, according to a Globe analysis of the itemized contributions to Warren from January to March.
In all, Warren raised about $6 million in the first quarter of 2019, and she was outraised by nearly every top-tier Democratic candidate after her decision to swear off pricey fund-raisers. Meanwhile, her campaign spent a higher percentage of what it brought in than many of those rivals, blowing through more than $5.2 million, the analysis found.
She criss-crossed the country campaigning in 64 cities and paid out nearly $1.2 million in salary to maintain the largest staff by far —161 people — among the candidates. Her high burn rate and relatively modest fund-raising performance overall raise questions about whether the policy-driven fund-raising bursts will be enough to raise the millions of dollars she needs to sustain her campaign.
“When you put all your eggs in the basket of the grass-roots low-dollar strategy, then you have to look for opportunities to create a conversation or to capture people’s outrage,” said Vince Frillici, the finance director for former senator Chris Dodd’s 2008 presidential run. “I think it’s potentially sustainable, but the problem is, she’s going to run out of things to announce.”
Warren saw other bumps in her fund-raising that did not coincide with a policy rollout, and it is difficult to parse whether it was her proposals, her appearances in the media, or other factors that motivated people to donate.
Itemized contributions, those from donors who gave more than $200 that must be listed in a candidate’s Federal Election Commission filings, represent only about $1.8 million of Warren’s $6 million haul, but they provide the clearest window yet into the way her fund-raising has unfolded. Those detailed first quarter figures, released this week, show a campaign that took off slowly but gathered fund-raising steam. Warren raised $758,000 in those larger donations in March, more than double what she did in January.
As her reputation for being a policy wonk took off, it seems, her fund-raising increased.
The events that attracted Warren the most dramatic spikes in fund-raising were her official presidential announcement in Lawrence, as well as appeals at the end of each month of the quarter, when her campaign sent out dire e-mails about falling behind their monthly money goals.
But Warren showed an ability to create smaller fund-raising boosts for herself, by hijacking headlines from the other Democratic candidates with creative policy proposals.
When she proposed providing affordable child care to all, 102 larger donors chipped in, compared to just 58 the day before. And when she vowed to break up big tech companies, she saw double the number of donations from the day before. Those proposals usually came with a fund-raising e-mail, and by the end of the quarter, her team was urging people to donate simply to keep Warren’s ideas in the race.
“I think it’s a good strategy in general because the first step of gaining traction is reminding people you’re running in a field this big,” said Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential run.
Ironically, the policy rollout that appeared to attract the most donations is also the one that likely cost Warren the most in lost fund-raising potential. Near the end of February, Warren announced to her supporters that she was swearing off high-dollar fund-raisers and would not even call wealthy donors to ask for money. That day, 255 larger donors contributed nearly $38,000 to her campaign, the most since her official announcement in Lawrence several weeks earlier. (One donor gave her the maximum contribution of $2,800 that day: Michael Schur, the television writer and producer behind “The Office” and “The Good Place.”)
While her move to swear off pricey fund-raisers as a way to give equal access to all of her supporters appeared to juice her donations, that spike can’t make up for the millions of dollars she’s potentially left on the table. Senator Kamala Harris of California, for example, quadrupled Warren’s performance among larger donors, bringing in $7.6 million.
Warren’s decision increases the pressure on her to build a larger base of small-dollar donors to fund her extensive campaign operation. A staple of Warren’s strategy as a candidate is to travel widely — including to some nontraditional primary states like Mississippi — and often. Her expenses reflect that. She spent more than $300,000 on travel since Jan. 15, including more than $25,000 in payments to a private jet company. For comparison, Harris spent $193,037 and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg spent $68,806 over a slightly shorter period.
But Warren entered the race with $10.4 million she had socked away as a senator, and still has the second largest amount of cash on hand of any candidate, with $11.2 million. And if she can keep up the momentum she saw in her final week of fund-raising, she’ll be on track to far outperform her first quarter.
“We go through these flavors of the month and at some point people are gonna settle down,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. “I assume that her staff is betting that that’s when she’s going to make her move, based on the solid policy proposals that they’ve laid out.”