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Bernie Sanders and Democrats’ Fundraising Predicament

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“I think we need a little urgency here,” he told me. “We’re going to be running against an incredibly well-oiled machine of over $1 billion. To see some of the biggest stars in our party only raise $5 million or $6 million in a quarter? It’s unacceptable. We need to do better.”

Gifford said Sanders’s success in labeling traditional fundraising as “dirty” was a significant factor, leading his rivals to be gun-shy about courting Wall Street and the wealthy donor community. “Frankly, I think, it’s a brilliant strategic move if it is strategic,” Gifford said, noting that only Sanders had shown he could rely almost exclusively on small, online donors. “You could find yourself in January of next year with Bernie having raised four times as much money as some of the other candidates, who should be legitimate competitors but who have, for whatever reason, decided to have this financial purity test, which I think is silly.”

Gifford’s concern about the lackluster first-quarter numbers is not universally shared by Democrats. Some have argued that the unusually large—and yet still incomplete—field made apples-to-apples comparisons with 2007 misguided, and they note that the party’s success in raising huge sums of money in 2018 was an indication that the dollars would start to flow more heavily soon. “I just think overall people need to relax a little bit,” said Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of Collective PAC, which raises money for black Democratic candidates across the country. Progressive activists have been urging party donors to prioritize down-ballot races in the aftermath of Trump’s election, and that could also be a factor in the slow start to the presidential race, at least on the margins. Collective PAC, for example, has co-endorsed the two major black candidates, Harris and fellow Senator Cory Booker, but it has yet to donate money to either of them.

James is with Gifford on the broader question about the future of Democratic Party fundraising: How far should candidates go in cutting off sources of money to shake the perception that wealthy donors and special interests hold sway over their campaigns and policy positions? While Obama swore off donations from corporate PACs, he still courted wealthy individuals employed by the nation’s biggest companies. Warren, for one, is taking things a giant step further.

“It feels like a nice symbolic gesture, but is that going to help you win?” James said. “I know a whole bunch of Wall Street people who are squarely focused on donating money to causes that advance civil rights and justice and equality,” she told me. “And like, yeah, I’m going to take their money, because they’re everyday people, too.

“I don’t know the valor in saying, I’m not going to accept donations from a person because they are wealthy or because they work on Wall Street or because they work in corporate America,” James told me. “The Republicans,” she noted, “aren’t going to leave any money on the table. I just don’t think it’s wise to go that far into donor purity.”

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