Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign announced on Monday that it raised $19.1 million dollars in the second quarter of 2019, slightly more than her left-wing rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, and only a bit less than the race’s current polling frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden.
This is, without question, good news for Warren, whose campaign struggled with fundraising early on. But it’s also a sign of health for the wider Democratic party—a signal that more than one candidate can mount a competitive White House campaign that relies on donations from grassroots supporters rather than large donors.
With Warren’s report, we now know how much money each of the five top presidential candidates raised during the second quarter:
If you’re the sort of person who would theoretically like to reduce the power of wealthy fundraisers in American politics, these numbers contain both bad news and good news.
The bad news is that canvassing rich people for cash is still very obviously an effective way to finance a presidential election. Candidates can haul in hundreds-of-thousands of dollars at a single event where hosts or attendees are asked to raise or directly donate a certain amount. Joe Biden has quickly amassed his war chest with a traditional fundraising campaign that he kicked off at the house of a Comcast executive. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has beat out the rest of the field by taking a hybrid approach: He’s raked in small-dollar contributions online while building up a donor network that has been compared to President Barack Obama’s. During Q2, he attended around 50 high-dollar fundraisers, where he apparently made a lot of Silicon Valley execs swoon.
Neither Warren nor Sanders are holding any big-donor events, and have instead staked their candidacies on grassroots support (though both are still accepting maximum individual donations of $2,800). Nobody really doubted this would work for Sanders; he amassed a large and fervent following during his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton, which quickly pumped about $18 million into his campaign during the first three months of this year. But with Warren, there was more a question mark. While she was known as one of the top fundraisers in the Senate—where she relied somewhat on donors willing to cut a max check—her presidential run started off on a terrible financial foot. She raised relatively little money online, and after declaring that she would no longer actively seek cash from wealthy backers , her finance director quit. Her campaign largely survived by transferring money over from her Senate war chest.
[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]
Those problems seem to be behind her. Warren is doing a better job connecting with voters, and at least for now has gotten past some the questions about electability and the uproar over her Native American DNA test that weighed down her early campaign. All of that has been reflected in her rising poll numbers. Her fundraising operation has gotten more creative, too; Warren is getting a lot of viral marketing mileage out of personally calling individual online donors, who have turned those calls into a bit of a meme.
But Warren’s success isn’t just good for her campaign. It’s good for the whole Democratic party. If the Senator’s poll numbers had improved, but not her financials, it would have been a serious cautionary tale for Democrats about the risk of trying to play small ball on fundraising—a sign that it might be unrealistic for more than one candidate to run a race without relying at all on $2,800-a-plate dinners. Instead, she’s showing that at least two progressives can pull it off, and maybe more. That should encourage other candidates to attempt the strategy in the future, and ensure that left-leaning voters with a good government streak have more than one candidate to choose from. Pumping Wall Street and big tech for cash is still an effective way to fuel a campaign. But it’s not the only way.
In the primary, anyway. Donald Trump will have a gigantic amount of campaign cash on hand by 2020—his campaign and the Republican Party raised $105 million combined during the second quarter. It’s unclear whether any Democrat could compete with small donors alone. Warren, for her part, has told supporters she’d do “what’s necessary” in a race versus the president.