The Slatest

Elizabeth Warren’s “No Access for Wealthy Donors” Policy Is a Clever Spin on Her Total Lack of Appeal to Wealthy Donors

Warren, wearing blue, speaks in front of a blue lectern with a WARREN sign on it and a large American flag backdrop.
Elizabeth Warren at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Feb. 10.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren announced on Monday that she will not be hosting private fundraising events or making personal phone calls to wealthy donors during the Democratic 2020 primary. “Even when the candidate’s heart is in the right place and the donor is well-intentioned,” she writes in a statement, “that time creates a direct relationship between wealth and access to our political leaders.” As such, she says, “we’re going to take the time presidential candidates typically reserve for courting wealthy donors and instead, use it to build organizing event after organizing event in the early primary states and across the country.”

On the merits it’s a logically sound response to a problem that faces all American elected officials, not just presidential candidates. One former Democratic congressman who’s become an advocate for campaign finance reform has estimated that he spent 30 to 40 hours a week on fundraising; a former Republican legislator involved in the same effort has described members of Congress as “telemarketers with cool titles.” In a 2018 piece for the Intercept, a former Obama staffer named Paul Perry who’d abandoned a run for a Pennsylvania congressional seat noted that the first written communication he received from the national Democratic Party after launching his campaign was a straightforward order to raise $200,000. Hillary Clinton essentially took a week-plus off of public campaigning in August 2016 to raise money at private events. It seems likely that one reason American politicians are typically more conservative than the electorate at large on fiscal issues like taxing the wealthy is simply that they spend the bulk of their time interacting with wealthy people.

The move also makes strategic sense for Warren given that there are not a lot of rich people lining up to donate to her campaign (or to act as fundraising “bundlers” soliciting other high-dollar donations, an important role given that direct contributions to candidates are legally capped at $2,700) in the first place. Warren’s history as an advocate of financial regulations has reportedly made her a “toxic” name among Democrats with Wall Street connections, and even if she wanted to pursue the Dems’ big-money donors, she’d be competing with other primary candidates like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand who have reportedly been pitching themselves to top party fundraisers for months. (Joe Biden would also attract significant donor support if he were to run.) In 2016, Bernie Sanders held a few private donor events but for the most part raised his money from small grassroots donations. With Monday’s announcement, Warren is getting some integrity-branding mileage out of the reality that she would have probably had to take the grassroots approach no matter what.

One big problem for her, though, is that Bernie Sanders is also running in the primary, and he demonstrated in abundance after last week’s campaign launch that he still has the loyalty of many, many progressive grassroots donors. Harris, who recorded her own impressive small-donor figure after announcing, has taken an early polling lead over Warren while superimposing an anti-corporate message over her often corporate-friendly history. As of right now, at least, Warren seems to be winning the ideas primary but not the race to persuade actual voters. The good news for her is she still has 11 more months to win over the caucus-goers of Iowa alone, so there’s still plenty of opportunity to see whether replacing pandering-to-rich-people time with actually-talking-to-normal-people time via on-the-ground organizing events—which, incidentally, was basically Beto O’Rourke’s strategy in the 2018 Texas Senate race—is just crazy enough to work.