WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren raised $6 million in her first three months as a presidential candidate, her campaign announced Wednesday, a total that falls short of several Democratic newcomers as she tries to stand out in a crowded field by swearing off some common funding tactics.
The senator’s $6 million haul from 135,000 donors puts her near the back of the pack of top-tier Democratic candidates but is enough to keep her extensive operation afloat — a development that probably will ease the concerns of some allies who worried her first-quarter totals would be dismal after she decided to forgo courting wealthy donors.
About 99 percent of contributions to Warren were for less than $200, demonstrating the breadth of her support among small donors. But she trails the leader among Democrats, Senator Bernie Sanders, who raised $18.2 million in the first quarter.
In a bright spot for her campaign, Warren gained considerable fund-raising momentum as the quarter wore on. She raised $1.4 million in the last week of March alone, after her campaign warned supporters in numerous e-mails she was being outraised by other candidates. The figure was nearly 25 percent of her total over the three-month period that began Jan. 1.
And the Massachusetts Democrat saw a spike in donations on the day she announced she was swearing off large dollar fund-raisers in February, suggesting to campaign officials that grass-roots progressives are responding to her strategy. Warren has more time to travel to unconventional primary states such as Mississippi and keep up a grueling campaign pace because she’s not on the fancy fund-raising circuit, her aides argue.
“Because Elizabeth’s been able to count on grassroots donations, she’s been able to spend her time visiting as many states as possible, meeting voters, and calling grassroots donors to personally thank them for giving,” Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau wrote to supporters in an e-mail announcing the total. Her adviser Joe Rospars, an Obama veteran, put it this way on Twitter: “Time is worth more than money.”
Still, for a candidate who entered the 2020 race on Dec. 31 with high expectations, the total is a sign that it could be difficult for her to stay competitive in the money chase while relying solely on small-dollar donors. She burned through $5 million in three months, but still has $11 million cash on hand due to the hefty war chest she had going in as a candidate.
Warren raised more than Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, who pulled in about $5 million each. But she lagged behind less-established candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, the once little-known mayor of South Bend, Ind., who reported $7 million in contributions in his first quarter as a candidate; former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, who pulled in $9.4 million; and Senator Kamala Harris of California, who raised $12 million.
Without directly naming Harris or O’Rourke, Lau suggested in his e-mail to supporters that those candidates are overly reliant on wealthy donors. “One of the other candidates who had more or less the same number of donations raised 55% more money because of big-dollar contributions,” Lau wrote, in a veiled reference to O’Rourke’s $9.4 million total.
Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg all reported having around the same number of total donors to their campaigns, but Warren’s average donation size was much lower than theirs at only $28. This suggests she raised less than them because she received fewer big contributions from wealthy donors. Based on the limited information that candidates have shared so far, only Sanders has a lower average donation rate than Warren among the top-tier candidates, at $20.
Early fund-raising is just one measure of momentum, and the candidate with the most money in the bank is not necessarily the one with the most supporters. But Warren’s fund-raising total casts some doubt on the wisdom of her decision to do away with the hybrid model of fund-raising she had mastered as a senator. For seven years, Warren brought in cash online with fiery appeals to the left’s small donor base as well as by hosting wealthy contributors in her Cambridge home and at restaurants in events that cost thousands of dollars just to walk through the door.
That model built her a reputation as a fund-raising juggernaut and heightened expectations for her as a presidential candidate. She raised $42.5 million for her first election in 2012, and another $35 million between then and her reelection bid last year.
“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 just from that appearance,” Doug Rubin, a top adviser to Warren’s 2012 campaign, told the Globe last month.
But in February, Warren announced she would no longer hold private fund-raisers or call wealthy people asking for donations. The new limitations came on top of her pledge not to take money from any political action committees or accept help from super PACs, which can pull in unlimited contributions. That vow alienated her longtime finance director, Michael Pratt, who is leaving the campaign, a development first reported by The New York Times.
Still, making a bet to rely solely on online fund-raising is risky, especially given that there were signs Warren’s star power as an online fund-raiser was fading before she decided to run for president. For years, Warren was a sought-after surrogate who helped Democrats around the country bring in campaign cash, and she socked away a cool $11 million for her own presidential run before she declared.
But by the 2018 midterms, she was competing with newer faces in the party who were out-performing her online. One adviser to a 2018 Senate candidate who requested anonymity to talk freely said Warren’s e-mails on that candidate’s behalf would bring in only about half as much money as e-mails sent by Harris. In the first quarter, Harris pulled in about $6 million from her online donor base and another $6 million in part from the kinds of fund-raisers that Warren has sworn off.
Warren has the campaign infrastructure of a front-runner, with 80 staffers in the four states with early contests and about 170 people on staff total, according to an aide. Veterans of presidential politics estimate it could take $100 million for a candidate to get through the four early states alone before confronting primaries in the giant states of California and Texas, where pricey advertising becomes more important to reach voters.
“Here’s the problem: The new map of having California and Texas so early means money is going to be even more important in the Democratic primary, unfortunately,” said Jim Messina, who was Barack Obama’s campaign manager for his 2012 run. “And Senator Warren just decided to get rid of half of her fund-raising ability.”
Yet those who have watched Warren’s career closely say not to count her out.
“You don’t have to outraise people, you just have to be competitive,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based political consultant. “The real test is the next quarter.”