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In the race for grassroots donations, it’s a battle between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders

Small-dollar donations also make up the majority of Pete Buttigieg’s, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang’s fundraising.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (R) (D-MA) pats Sen. Bernie Sanders (L) (I-VT) on the back.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (R) (D-MA) pats Sen. Bernie Sanders (L) (I-VT) on the back after Sanders spoke at a news conference on Social Security on February 16, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) threw down a small-dollar donations gauntlet in February, eschewing big donors and drawing from fellow progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) grassroots playbook. That pledge hasn’t backfired as some expected, but it’s resulted in fundraising numbers that are good — not great.

Warren raised around $6 million in the first quarter of the year, according to her campaign’s FEC filing report. The Massachusetts senator has gotten most of her money from donations of $200 or less. But then again, so has Sanders, who is the leading 2020 financial fundraiser with $18.2 million, outraising Warren three times over.

The first look at 2020 candidates’ finances this week showed voters that Sanders and Warren’s campaigns are both being driven by grassroots support; Sanders has raised 84 percent of his donations from small donors, while Warren has raised 70 percent of hers that way.

Andrew Yang, the start-up entrepreneur who is running on a universal basic income, also raised 81 percent of his overall $1.7 million fundraising haul from small dollar donations. Though lesser-known than Sanders and Warren, Yang has a dedicated base of supporters, and will qualify for primary debates.

A few other major candidates are also raising the majority of their money from small donations, but none to quite the extent of Sanders and Warren: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised 64 percent of his overall $7.1 million haul from small donations, while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke got 59 percent of his $9.4 million total from small contributions. Other major candidates, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), are relying far more on other sources; small donations made up 39 percent of Harris’s fundraising and just 16 percent of Booker’s.

But the sheer size of Sanders’s fundraising haul compared to Warren’s shows a clear reality: As these two progressives compete for a similar base of support in the 2020 campaign, Sanders is a formidable opponent. If fundraising numbers are a show of enthusiasm, it’s clear that Sanders’s 2016 base is still very enthusiastic about the Vermont senator and that it could be tough for Warren to cut into that support.

Even though Warren’s $6 million in funds raised puts her behind Sanders, Harris, O’Rourke, and Buttigieg, she is still on solid financial footing. Warren has spent about as much as she’s raised (largely on hiring campaign staff). But she also transferred $10.4 million from her Senate campaign to her presidential campaign, so she’s actually the candidate with the second-most cash on hand — $11.2 million, behind Sanders’s $15.7 million.

In other words, Warren seemingly planned ahead and has plenty of money to keep going for now. But if she wants to win the nomination — a journey that could take another year — she also needs to work on boosting her future small-dollar fundraising numbers, because it’s her main cash stream.

Warren swore off PAC money to make a statement. But it’s a risky move.

In a presidential field where numerous candidates swore off corporate PAC money, Warren went a step further. In February, the anti-big banks crusader said she wouldn’t grant big donors special access, or do fundraisers or call time with wealthy people who could bankroll her campaign.

“For every time you see a presidential candidate talking with voters at a town hall, rally, or local diner, those same candidates are spending three or four or five times as long with wealthy donors — on the phone, or in conference rooms at hedge fund offices, or at fancy receptions and intimate dinners — all behind closed doors,” Warren wrote in an email to her supporters.

Warren gave herself strident fundraising restrictions to prove to voters she couldn’t be bought: no PAC, corporate PAC, or Super PAC money, no donations from federal lobbyists.

But even as Warren follows through on her promises, cutting off so many sources of potential funding carries risk — as Vox’s Emily Stewart wrote:

Still, Warren’s decision may very well come at a cost. She will still accept checks up to the maximum for the cycle, $2,800, but because she’ll be avoiding events where those types of checks are often written, she probably won’t bring in as many.

As the Washington Post notes, Warren has had some issues with fundraising already. This latest decision could complicate the situation even further. Or it could be used as cover when her fundraising numbers are lower than expected.

Warren helped shield herself a bit with the transfer from her Senate campaign, but that’s not an unlimited coffer. And we still have many months to go before the first Democratic primaries kick off in February.

Update: This story was updated to include 2020 candidate Andrew Yang’s small-dollar donations.

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