Take the Money and Run

The 2020 Democratic primary has been as much about how candidates raise money as what they want to do once in office.


It took almost 23 hours of Democratic debates, across six months and 20-plus candidates, for the first real punch to land.

“Most of the people on this stage run a traditional campaign. And that means going back and forth from coast to coast to rich people,” began Elizabeth Warren in Los Angeles in late December. “So the mayor [Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana] just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine … We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

The audience burst into applause. The debate circuit, which has been such a maddening display of shadowboxing and mutual non-engagement that it’s been hard to differentiate the candidates, had finally stumbled upon a substantive disagreement.

Buttigieg responded to Warren. “We need the support from everybody who is committed to helping us defeat Donald Trump. So to denounce the same kind of fundraising guidelines that President Obama went by, that Speaker Pelosi goes by, that you yourself went by until not long ago, in order to build the Democratic Party and build a campaign ready for the fight of our lives, these purity tests shrink the stakes of the most important election.”

Then Bernie Sanders interceded, pointing out that former Vice President Joe Biden “received contributions from 44 billionaires” during the campaign, while Buttigieg “only got 39 billionaires.” Biden demurred, insisting that said billionaires only provided the maximum $2,800 donation. The billionaire flanking Sanders at stage left, Tom Steyer, tried to deflect: “There’s someone who is loving this conversation, and his name is Donald Trump.” The absentee mega-billionaire floating over the exchange, Mike Bloomberg, was unavailable for comment.

Many believed the 2020 campaign would be dominated by health care, climate change, or corporate plutocracy. And all of those topics have had their moments. But ten years into the Citizens United era, where money has seeped into every pore of the democratic process, previously unheralded questions about campaign finance have become predominant. The process of raising money has historically been perfunctory, arousing little interest. Now, it serves as a way to express frustrations with a rigged economic system, a substitute for policy content and ideology, a proxy for who candidates are and what they stand for. As the primary enters its final leg, campaign finance has become a chief distinguishing marker by which we can understand Democratic politics.

Three distinct camps, articulated clearly on that December debate stage, have emerged: the traditionalists, the reformers, and the super-rich. Sanders and Warren have funded their campaigns entirely on the might of an unprecedented swell of online contributors. On the far opposite end, a similarly radical insurgency of self-funded billionaires, Steyer and Bloomberg, have committed their functionally infinite funds to buying the infrastructure needed to win votes. And left in the once-thick middle is an increasingly strained crowd, repped by surviving members Biden and Buttigieg, subsisting off high-dollar fundraisers, bundlers, super PACs, and access politics.

That’s set the stage for a profound reckoning. The Democratic presidential primary, of course, is also a contest for control of the party’s identity, a mantle that will be assumed de facto by its winner. And the emergence of these three warring factions has elicited a battle over not only how to fund elections, but the future of the Democratic Party’s relationship to big money.

THE MOST STRUCTURALLY important development of the primary cycle has been the small-dollar fundraising of Senators Sanders and Warren. Individual contributions, primarily brought in over the internet, have long played a vital role in Democratic politics. Indeed, Sanders drew upon a fervid army of supporters to great effect in his 2016 presidential run, as have several others in the online era.

But this time around, Sanders and Warren have sloughed off traditional fundraising sources entirely: no schmoozing with rich donors, no high-priced events, no dialing for dollars into wealthy enclaves. These actions have been the backbone of campaign sponsorship since time immemorial. Sanders and Warren have both committed to continuing this approach, if nominated, in the general election. Such a strategy has never been seen before in presidential politics—even Sanders did a handful of paid events in 2016.

And yet their fundraising hauls have been astounding. In 2019, Bernie Sanders reaped more than $96 million from a record-setting 1.2 million donors (that’s $18 a contribution), including $34.5 million in the final quarter. Warren, meanwhile, raised $70.9 million last year, at roughly $26 a pop. Accounting for transfers from other accounts, Sanders and Warren have lapped the non-billionaire Democratic field. Their success has upended all conventional wisdom about big-money fundraising; for this presidential cycle, at least, there may be more money in refusing large checks.

It’s easy to forget how risky this approach was considered to be even recently. “The biggest problem that we as Democrats have to face is that this is a war—and I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” was how Bakari Sellers, Democratic commentator and surrogate for California Senator Kamala Harris, put it in October. “Trying to beat Donald Trump with small dollar donations? That’s about as good as an ashtray on a motorcycle.”

The sentiment was shared even among some Sanders supporters in the wake of his 2016 run. As former staffers subsequently launched the outside electoral organization Our Revolution, 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver wanted to fund it via traditional big-money sources. That led to internal dissension, which Politico gleefully reported as the revolution “already tearing itself apart.” (Our Revolution has taken a handful of six-figure donations, and its 2020 role organizing volunteers and canvassing in Iowa has led to charges of Sanders receiving support from a super PAC–like entity.)

Meanwhile, Warren’s commitment to small-dollar fundraising came out of even greater uncertainty. She had routinely raised money by shaking the money tree; in fact, a share of that bounty was dumped from her Senate account into her presidential run. But she decided to scorn big money for the campaign, a move that caused her finance director to quit in protest, convinced it would never work.

Sanders and Warren have sworn off the usual sources: no schmoozing with rich donors, no high-priced events, no dialing for dollars into wealthy enclaves.

“Elizabeth’s campaign started out with that horrible incident with the DNA stuff; she had a good email list from her Senate race but it wasn’t performing well at all,” Mike Lux, the co-founder of progressive consulting group Democracy Partners and a Warren supporter, told me. “She made that decision at a time her list was basically dead. It was one of the gutsiest moves I’ve ever seen. I was surprised by it, and I didn’t agree with it at the time.” But on the strength of a campaign that’s invigorated its base, the gamble paid off.

The embrace of small-dollar funding has afforded Warren and Sanders not only larger war chests than their competitors, but also credibility on the issues. On health care, financial reform, and climate change, the campaigns’ refusal of elite funding has spoken as much to their convictions as the plans themselves. They could credibly promise to break up Amazon and Facebook, or dismantle the health insurance and fossil fuel industries, because they held no stake in protecting those corporate giants.

It’s also freed up time for campaigning. While rivals have courted donors at patrician events, Sanders and Warren have hosted innumerable rallies, town halls, and selfie lines, which in turn increase engagement and harvest more money. They’ve done this, unlike Biden, as sitting senators, with the obligations of full-time jobs.

Their success has made believers of some of the most recalcitrant: “Bernie Sanders has sort of equaled the financial strength of Mike Bloomberg in this race,” notorious quasi-Democrat Joe Lieberman told The Hill in January.

AS UNPRECEDENTED as the Sanders/Warren strategy has been, the emergence of self-funded billionaires has been just as radical. Tom Steyer, the hedge fund prodigy whose net worth Forbes pegs at $1.6 billion (though some think it’s much higher), is perhaps the richest person to ever run for president, if not for the inclusion of Mike Bloomberg, and his $60.1 billion bankroll.

Bloomberg and Steyer are hardly the first self-funders to seek elected office. As recently as 2018, billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker ran for and won the governor’s mansion in Illinois. Colleagues like hedge funder Jon Corzine (senator and then governor of New Jersey), business executive Tom Wolf (governor of Pennsylvania), and Total Wine impresario David Trone (a freshman congressman from Maryland who was the largest self-funder in the history of the House of Representatives) have found success.

But that list is also littered with ignominious and pricey defeats. Tech executive Meg Whitman spent $144 million of her own money in a doomed bid for the California governor’s mansion in 2010; Michael Huffington, then-husband of Arianna, spent $28 million on a doomed Senate race in 1994. For the presidency, libertarian billionaire Ross Perot shelled out $72 million in races in 1992 and 1996, helping secure the presidency for Bill Clinton. Even Trone blew $13 million on a House primary in 2016 before winning a different district in 2018. We remember the winners, but self-funders actually tend to lose, and often lose big.

But wealth inequality has exploded in the United States, minting a new class of billionaires with financial resources unparalleled since the first Gilded Age. That’s manifested itself in a politically emboldened upper crust, who used to content themselves with sitting on the sidelines and buying off politicians. When the Supreme Court torpedoed the already weakened defenses keeping at least some money out of politics with its 2010 Citizens United decision, all such temperance went out the window.

“Because of super PACs and unlimited contributions, it softened and legitimized billionaires becoming part of the process,” said Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin and co-author of the last major campaign finance reform law. “Now, people have a softer attitude and less concern about people who spend a lot of their own money like Steyer and Bloomberg.” Compounded by the Trump tax cut, which may well prove to be the signature campaign finance legislation of the decade, money has poured in from all angles.

The campaigns being run by Steyer and Bloomberg are nothing short of stupefying. As of early January, Bloomberg had spent over $200 million on ad buys alone, after only announcing in late November. The entire rest of the field had spent a total of $222 million combined, with Steyer accounting for at least $106 million of that. At one point this winter, Steyer was responsible for nine out of every ten dollars spent on advertising in South Carolina. Bloomberg purchased a 60-second Super Bowl ad costing over $10 million to run one time (fellow billionaire—or “billionaire”—Donald Trump snapped up two 30-second Super Bowl ads of his own). Meanwhile, an average week sees Bloomberg drop roughly 20 percent more on advertising than Sanders raised in his record-setting fourth quarter of 2019.

While it may be easy to write off these efforts as insane vanity projects, they’re getting results. A recent South Carolina Fox News poll placed Steyer in second place, surging ahead of both Sanders and Warren. Another Fox poll showed him tied for third with Warren in Nevada. Bloomberg already has over 1,000 staffers nationwide, many of whom he’s guaranteed employment through November. Bloomberg’s unthinkable financial resources allow him to call in support from across the country, as a kind of return on investment. His philanthropic wing has funneled money to mayors across the country, and they’ve folded into his support base. He recently appeared at an event with Stacey Abrams after giving $5 million to her group Fair Fight Action.

“At the current pace, Bloomberg could end up spending four or five times as much money as Bernie, who has raised as much money as any candidate ever,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project. “A rich guy making contributions to buy influence while running for office, continuing to be a mega-donor while running, I don’t believe has any precedent.”

If that weren’t disorienting enough, Steyer and Bloomberg have cloaked their big-money conquest in the same rhetoric that’s become native to Sanders and Warren. When Bloomberg, who has refused all donations to his campaign, play-acted at chastising the Democratic Party for not letting him join the debates, because he lacks any donors to meet the qualification threshold, he did so sounding the call of a wounded idealist: “I don’t take money from anybody else … I listen to people but I don’t let people buy me.” Similarly, in an interview with the Prospect, Steyer channeled Sanders in saying, “When you talk about people’s teams, my team is the American people, I have no conflicts.”

All the money in the world seems to come with all the world’s cynicism. It will surprise no one to hear that Bloomberg’s campaign is staffed with the same lobbyists and corporate hacks that would have to pay for access in any other campaign. Take his campaign co-chair, Steve Benjamin, who used to be a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, the fossil fuel front group. And Bloomberg’s goals in particular are relatively more modest than Sanders’s and Warren’s, particularly as they relate to taxing rich people like him; the progressives support a wealth tax, which Bloomberg said in November “just doesn’t work.”

So the Democratic Party is now playing host to a battery of candidates pledging to take on the country’s oligarchy, and, simultaneously, those very oligarchs, all of whom are using the same messaging to justify their cause. If successful, it could sketch a troubling blueprint for billionaires to come. Imagine Jeff Bezos, who’s twice as rich as Bloomberg, setting his sights on public office, a political rival, or an unfavorable piece of legislation. “I think it’s an existential crisis for the historic Democratic Party,” said Lux. “It’s actually very dangerous. If Bloomberg were to pull this off it could destroy the party over time.”

THE TWO INSURGENCIES, pulling the party in opposite directions, have left behind a coterie of candidates—Biden and Buttigieg, but also current and former hopefuls Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, and Beto O’Rourke. All of them have played the traditional game of high-dollar fundraising and money-for-access events.

That haul has been surprisingly meager, exposing a weakness in the traditional fundraising approach. Big-money fundraisers and bundlers can recoup thousands of bucks at a time, but they require lots of feeding and caring. Wealthy benefactors like to be attended to by their political investments, evinced most notably by the fracas over Pete Buttigieg’s wine cave fundraiser. Bill Wehrle, an attendee, took to the pages of The Washington Post to defend the event’s propriety, arguing he only paid $11 to attend. But that was only because he’d already donated $2,789 to Buttigieg, maxing out at the wine cave at the $2,800 limit. Buttigieg had to spend valuable time securing those rewards, then eating dinner and soothing egos to pull down the extra money. The hourly return on that $11 would make his friends at McKinsey shudder.

Despite Buttigieg’s justification of big money as an actively populist social good (He’s insisted on the “importance of building a campaign that can draw together and include as many people as possible”), he got blown out in 2019’s final quarter by Bernie Sanders by a whopping $10 million. Joe Biden, despite decades in the public eye as a senator and vice president, and a career providing favorable service for the financial industry while representing Delaware, the country’s in-house tax haven, has also struggled to wrangle big bucks. Biden’s best fundraising quarter of the year also came in Q4, at $22.7 million. That number just barely beat out Warren, who many considered to have posted a disappointing haul.

Nearly all of the major dropouts in the race have occurred in this class of fundraiser. After kicking off with huge excitement, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris, both armed with lengthy email lists, national profiles, and promising poll numbers, failed to make it to Iowa, despite leaning on traditional fundraising support. Ditto Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker. With too many candidates chasing too few rich donors, none of them were popular enough to secure more funds, and none of them had enough funds to become more popular. (The fact that candidates of color couldn’t pull off a small-dollar bonanza also suggests that the digital divide continues to play a troubling role in America.)

Alarmed by the circumstance, numerous candidates, current and former, have reneged on long-held pledges to discourage support from super PACs. There was simply no other way to keep up with the Sanderses and Bloombergs. Booker got super PAC help and disavowed it; Deval Patrick got $2 million for New Hampshire ads and didn’t. Before dropping out, Harris was about to benefit from a super PAC buy in Iowa; the ads were already cut when she quit. Buttigieg has support from a veterans PAC waiting to be deployed. And Biden’s Unite the Country PAC spent $2.3 million on TV ads in Iowa in early January. This backslide has undone years of activist work to make super PACs unwelcome.

The justifications for accepting big money have contorted into pretzel logic. Buttigieg’s contention that money doesn’t corrupt flies in the face of core Democratic Party convictions. Why did 24 candidates, including Buttigieg, sign a pledge swearing off corporate PAC money if it doesn’t matter? Why did 19 others, including Buttigieg, forswear fossil fuel money? Why did Buttigieg reject banking industry donations when he ran for Indiana Treasurer in 2010? The hoop-jumping reached its apex when reporters informed Buttigieg’s team that the wine cave owner, Craig Hall, is heavily invested in oil and gas wells in Arkansas. Hall, the campaign said, is merely a real-estate executive who dabbles in hydrocarbons.

Wealthy donors also become a way to fill out the executive branch, as functionaries and ambassadors. They swarm presidential transitions and create silent barriers to action that cannot be breached. They occupy the mindshare of candidates, who must pay attention at a high level to a certain set of concerns. The policy impact of traditional fundraising is evidenced in the neoliberal turn of the Democratic Party since the 1970s.

If big money is nothing to be ashamed of, one wonders why the remaining candidates are so cagey. Buttigieg refused to disclose the bundlers raising at least $25,000 for his campaign until succumbing to public pressure, and even then only produced a partial list, omitting his most objectionable backers. Biden, meanwhile, dumped his bundlers list at 11 p.m. the Friday after Christmas Day. Amy Klobuchar quietly followed suit in January.

Bloomberg and Steyer are not the first self-funders to seek elected office. Some before them have succeeded, but there have also been ignominious and pricey defeats.

THE POTENCY OF THE small-dollar approach and its throwing of the traditional fundraising model into upheaval has surprised political onlookers. But the transformation has been building for 20 years, an innovation as much technological as political.

In late 1998, preparing to mount a long-shot challenge against Vice President Al Gore, the Bill Bradley campaign looked about for any untapped advantage. Bradley lacked institutional support, but he had name recognition as a former shooting guard for the New York Knicks, and a decent-sized (in those days) email list. But soliciting donations over the internet was forbidden by the FEC. So the Bradley team petitioned to have internet contributions treated like any other, and won, a decision that coincided with the beginning of e-commerce. “The holiday season of 1998 was the very first time Americans got comfortable using credit cards online. There was a huge surge in purchasing,” Lynn Reed, who helped oversee the Bradley campaign’s digital fundraising, told me. “People started to feel like ‘I can use my credit card and not get scammed most of the time.’ If that hadn’t changed we wouldn’t have been able to push it so hard.”

Not only was blasting the email list effective at unearthing money and volunteers, the opportunity cost of doing so was effectively nil. Until that point, seeking non-rich support entailed phone calls and direct mail, both expensive undertakings. “Asking for money online became weightless,” said Reed. “Now that we’re this far into online fundraising we forget how it used to be and how much money it used to cost an organization to raise those small dollars.” Bradley would ultimately fall to Gore, but not before a spirited challenge, buoyed by the first $1 million ever raised online.

The trend was quickly embraced, not by fellow Democrats, but by Republican John McCain. After McCain scored a shock victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, his campaign seized on the momentum with an online fundraising ask that brought in $1 million in just 24 hours, big money for that time. He ended up raising some $6 million online before ultimately falling to George W. Bush.

Four years later, anti-war candidate of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” Howard Dean took online donations to a new level. All told, Dean raised some $50 million, most of it online, with multiple multimillion-dollar quarters. Dean’s campaign would “put up the bat”—a cartoon image of a baseball player—whenever making a fundraising challenge. The bat would fill up as the goal neared, bringing unusual interest into the drudgery of raising money.

Though his campaign ultimately sputtered out, Dean’s prowess endured with the launch of the website ActBlue. Created in 2004 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Matt DeBergalis and Harvard-trained physicist Ben Rahn, ActBlue, once referred to as the “bundler of the unbundled,” quickly became a game changer. Part blog, part PAC, part fundraising platform, the site conceived a smooth pathway for online donations. Right away it helped secure funds for progressive politicians up and down the ballot.

Barack Obama took the Dean approach to new heights, with 6.5 million donations from 3 million supporters, good for a half billion dollars in total. He didn’t forsake traditional fundraising altogether—his largest individual donor was Goldman Sachs, a troubling portent of what was to come. But his approach showed that small-dollar fundraising wasn’t just reserved for protest campaigns. Small bucks could win big.

In 2010, the Supreme Court struck back with the Citizens United decision, unleashing a powerful counterrevolutionary force. The Court took corporate cash off its leash, gutting the soft-money provisions in the bipartisan 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, and opening the door for dark money. “The corporate and powerful interests realized that the progressive base is going to overwhelm us if we don’t open the spigot,” Feingold told me. Citizens United “was a response to our success; the development of electronic democracy was very threatening to the power structure.”

Yet the low-dollar revolution was here to stay. While there were concerns that the model could only work in a high-profile national race like the presidency, in 2012 a Harvard law professor deployed it in a Senate election. Elizabeth Warren faced a well-heeled, well-funded Wall Street darling with high approval ratings in Massachusetts named Scott Brown. Despite the big money stuffing Brown’s pockets, she pulled it out. “She raised $20 million online, which was unheard of,” said Lux. “People other than those running for president were like, ‘Oh my god.’ If you’re able to project yourself on a national level you might have the ability to raise that kind of money.”

Still, skeptics held onto the idea that the small-dollar approach was viable only in exceptional circumstances. Playing ball with big money and following the dictates of the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC were necessary wages, especially as Republicans reaped astonishing electoral windfalls while the Koch brothers staked an entire political empire in-house.

There’s some validity to that argument. Republicans have overwhelmed Democrats way down the ballot with big money in school board, judicial, and state legislative races. A $30 million investment from a project called REDMAP flipped state legislatures in 2010 and locked in a decade of power after redistricting. It’s legitimate to suggest that, until the campaign finance system changes, some Democrats will need to legally raise money however they choose.

But obeisance to big money crept back up the ballot in 2016, as Hillary Clinton embraced super PACs and big donors, to disastrous effect. Donald Trump, previewing some of the hackneyed logic now being elevated by Bloomberg and Steyer, claimed to be morally unimpeachable because he was self-funding (of course, he didn’t self-fund—he actually made money off his campaign by booking his hotels for events). He hammered Hillary for perceived corruption, which no doubt hurt her already rickety image.

In 2018, Democrats rededicated to leaving behind big money, proving that small dollars could win further down the ticket than previously thought. Dozens of House members obtained and flipped seats while rejecting corporate PAC dollars. And two progressive challengers, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and California’s Katie Porter, managed to win first terms without doing any big-money fundraisers.

Biden and Buttigieg are playing the traditional game of high-dollar fundraising. But it does require the time-consuming care and feeding of wealthy donors.

While AOC won in a true-blue district, Porter swung a traditionally Republican seat, edging her conservative opponent by four points. AOC has quickly become one of the best fundraisers in the House, with Porter close behind. In both quarters 2 and 3 of 2019, Porter broke $1 million in donations, approaching that of impeachment figurehead Adam Schiff and money maven Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Meanwhile, in November, Ocasio-Cortez announced a pace-setting $1.4 million quarterly haul; in one day alone in January, she raised $100,000 in campaign donations and another $69,000 for her new political action committee.

The approach hasn’t only been good tactically; it’s allowed them to be more effective legislators. Instead of spending time pressing the flesh, they’ve been writing bills, intensely questioning in hearings, and leading rallies for causes and candidates. “I haven’t picked up a phone once this year to dial for dollars, & I don’t meet w/corp lobbyists,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in November. “Instead, your support allows me to spend hours each day studying issues & exposing abuse of power.”

There’s another reason to believe that small-dollar politics represents the best path forward for the Democratic Party. The embrace of big money comes with strings, as progressives have seen since Tony Coelho’s corporate fundraising efforts in the 1980s. It damages the party brand to incessantly endure compromises because of the alleged necessity of tapping campaign cash. It forces Democrats to cede legitimacy on campaign finance, and muddies the party’s message on taking on powerful interests.

The erosion of campaign finance standards by a conservative judiciary nudged by monied interests has been a disaster for small-d democracy, allowing big money to overtake the political system. It’s also put big-d Democrats at an inordinate disadvantage; they’ve been forced to fight not just Republicans but a massive headwind of corporate donors. We’ve seen how the language of “corruption” resonates, and that ties directly back to how candidates raise money. Democrats running the high-dollar fundraiser gauntlet may not provide the best path to victory; in fact, there’s reason to believe it can be a formidable enemy.

The politics of corruption sit comfortably with the fight against inequality. The Trump tax cuts ceded more wealth to the rich, and that financial power habitually converts into political power, mostly through the channel of campaign contributions. It’s certainly possible to wage war on the rich while taking their money; many candidates in the Democratic field have vowed to do so. But the broken faith in democratic institutions makes this a harder sell. In a cynical age, there’s simply an expectation that big money tilts the political system (because often it does). The only ways out of this vice grip are the incorruptible-billionaire model or the small-dollar one, and only one of them is achievable at scale.

SMALL DOLLARS MAY RULE the primary, but the battle that really counts is against the Trump money machine. And the prospect of heading into it without corporate air cover has even some small-dollar evangelists uncertain.

Trump’s fundraising is formidable. The re-election campaign raised $46 million in the final three months of 2019, and $143 million throughout the year. Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, called the numbers indicative of “an unstoppable juggernaut.” And there are enough rich conservatives willing to reload Trump’s coffers and associated super PACs, perhaps endlessly.

And yet, according to a year-end report from ActBlue, the small-dollar donor community raised more than $1 billion for over 13,000 candidates and organizations in 2019. Individual contribution statistics are even more compelling: Over three million of those donors were first-time contributors, as many as in 2017 and 2018 combined. Forty percent of first-time donors gave multiple times in 2019. This happened in an off year—exceedingly few federal offices were up for election in 2019.

Summing together the money raised by Democratic primary candidates also yields good news. Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Biden, Andrew Yang, and Klobuchar teamed up to raise $412.1 million in 2019, almost three times what Trump pocketed during that time period. And Warren and Sanders raised $55 million in Q4, dwarfing Trump on small dollars alone.

Upon closer examination, Trump’s numbers look surprisingly ramshackle. Sitting first-term presidents almost always enjoy strong fundraising for re-election. Barack Obama raised about $40 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, even after the Democratic Party suffered a colossal wipeout in the House and Senate. Former President George W. Bush raised $47.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2003, significantly more than Trump when accounting for inflation, in a pre–Citizens United era with far less money in politics. The Trump money machine is going to be well-oiled, but it’s not unsurpassable. For comparison, the Sanders campaign has staked out a general-election fundraising goal that previously would’ve seemed impossible: “Against Trump … we will have 50 million individual contributions, at least. And at $27 a piece, that would be more than $1 billion,” they announced in a press release.

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that you don’t actually need more money, you just have to stay in the neighborhood. Donald Trump was outraised by Hillary Clinton 2 to 1 and still managed to win. Grassroots folks are so energized to beat Trump, and will be so energized by either of [Warren or Sanders] winning, the contributions will come in like a tsunami. And labor and many other organizations will still be spending all their organizational resources, so that will help as well,” predicted Lux.

If the small-dollar revolution does indeed win out, it could provide the spark to transform the electoral process forever, by providing an alternative path to the hors d’oeuvres circuit. The only route to truly democratizing our elections, however, lies with campaign finance reform. Political donors are disproportionately wealthier and whiter than the general population, and the fact that it can be easier to get approved for a credit card than a voter ID is hardly a democratic triumph. And unless and until every Democrat running for office has the star power of an AOC—an unlikely scenario—forgotten Democrats who can contribute to a governing majority will be left adrift in a sea of big money, and tempted to tap it themselves.

Any long-term strategy for Democrats, therefore, must include campaign finance reform. The inability to do so is an existential threat to the rest of the agenda: Medicare for All, Green New Deal, you name it. That’s why H.R. 1, the first bill introduced by the newly Democratic House in 2019, which included provisions for publicly funded elections and other reforms, was rightfully high on the to-do list. It’s also why Mitch McConnell has spent his entire career opposing these things.

Even the avatar of the modern small-dollar revolution, the best hope of a future that doesn’t rely on big money, understands the ultimate solution. “I think it’s fair to say we have a political system which is corrupt, and at the very top of my administration’s agenda will be to deal with that,” said Sanders on the stump in Iowa in January. “We have got to overturn this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and in my view move to public funding of elections.”

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