elizabeth warren

Could Warren’s Abandonment of Big-Money Fundraisers Hurt Her in a General Election?

Not into the elbow-rubbing-with-billionaires thing. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Ben: This week, Elizabeth Warren said that she would forgo high-dollar fundraisers in a general-election campaign against President Trump. She had previously maintained that she would drop this rule, which she has been following during the primaries, if she won the nomination, saying that she is not a fan of “unilateral disarmament.” Will her change of heart put her at a disadvantage?

Josh: I don’t think we know. The argument against doing this, obviously, is that these fundraisers can bring in a lot of money, some of which she won’t collect if she doesn’t do them. And it’s not just money for her own campaign, but for the Democratic National Committee and for state Democratic Parties, which use the funds to support Democratic efforts more broadly.

But there are empirical questions we don’t have answers to: How much money actually won’t be donated, which she would have managed to raise if she did these appearances like other nominees typically have? Can she use a promise not to do such fundraising to generate more grassroots money, or will she be rewarded for it by voters? And — I think most importantly — how will she spend the time that is freed up by avoiding the time suck that is high-dollar fundraising?

Eric: Yes. There’s also the question of whether money lost from holding such fundraisers will just be diverted into pro-Warren super-PACs. On the one hand, given the meteoric rise of online fundraising — and the eagerness of the Democrats’ (increasingly deep-pocketed) base to fight Trumpism with their wallets — it isn’t that hard to see Warren keeping her coffers full without meeting and greeting big-dollar donors.

Josh: I’m confused about why declining to engage in glad-handing would lead to more money in super-PACs.

Eric: The super PACs could hold glitzy fundraisers even if the Warren campaign doesn’t.

Josh: The DNC and the state parties can hold the glitzy fundraisers, too, and they will. The question is whether donors, who expect to be able to come see the candidate and, with a high enough ticket price, talk with the candidate, will be willing to write the checks if they don’t get to do that. I think one point in favor of Warren’s strategy is: Why do people write large checks to political campaigns and parties? If they’re writing the checks because they hope to get access, they may already be sour on Warren, which makes this sort of stuff a less efficient use of her time than it would be for another nominee. And if they’re writing the checks just because they are ideologically motivated, her rule may allow her to collect that money more efficiently: Those donors might like face time with the candidate, but if they know nobody is getting it, maybe they will still send their checks anyway.

Ben: Matt Yglesias tweeted this morning that one of the problems with Warren’s approach is that “every time Warren has a second- or third-degree interaction with a donor it will be reported as a hypocrisy story while Trump continues to collect bribes through his hotels on a daily basis with no reaction.” What do you make of that argument?

Josh: What I lay out there is an argument for why it might (might! not saying it is) be a good decision for her to choose to continue not spending time on this during a general election. That doesn’t mean she needs to make a public commitment to it.

Eric: I feel like those kind of stories would be written about Warren either way.

Josh: I tend to think, in general, campaign-finance issues move very few voters, especially in general elections. So I’m not sure it matters if Warren gets attacked over that later.

Eric: I think one potentially awkward aspect of Warren’s stance is that lower-profile, down-ballot Democrats can’t afford to emulate her example. So if Warren effectively equates glad-handing with corruption, then she’ll be tacitly accusing virtually every other Democrat of that sin.

Josh: On the other hand, if Warren doesn’t spend her time courting high-dollar donors, those donors might divert more of their donations toward down-ballot candidates who are willing to attend fundraisers.

Eric: True. Or potentially true.

Josh: I think people are looking too hard for a general principle here, and I think it’s quite possible that Warren has good reasons to adopt this strategy that aren’t necessarily generalizable. I think people are looking at it too much as an ideological decision and not enough as a tactical one.

Eric: Do you think announcing this pledge now has tactical value in the primary?

Josh: I don’t know how much it matters in the primary — presumably, if it helps that’s because it covers her left flank. You’re probably better positioned to get inside the head of a Bernie voter than I am.

Eric: I can see the argument that this sort of gesture isn’t going to win over Bernie diehards, even as it risks feeding concerns about electability (though I sorta doubt it’ll have much impact whatsoever).

Josh: I do have an idea about “why now” though: She’s had another eight months of experience campaigning, and the campaign has a better sense of how it can raise money, and might be more confident it can honor the pledge.

Ben: She did raise the second most of any primary contender last quarter, trailing only Bernie Sanders, who also shuns big donors.

Josh: And she has dry powder. A lot of those Establishment figures who wrote max-out checks to Joe Biden will end up writing checks to her if she is the nominee,

whereas I don’t know how many of her grassroots donors will give to Biden if he is nominated.

Ben: To what extent do you think a Democratic nominee who DOES attend some glitzy galas will depress donations among small donors? is this something most voters care that much about?

Josh: In a general election, I don’t think so. I understand fighting over it in a primary — you’re trying to figure out which candidate is MOST committed to your values, and how they raise money is a signal of that. In a general election, I don’t see how this creates daylight versus Donald Trump.

Eric: I sorta doubt it. I think the benefit is probably going to come more in the form of saved time than more grassroots funding.

Josh: Yeah, I think people really underrate that aspect — this frees up a ton of time.

Eric: Another point that Sean McElwee raised on Twitter: In recent presidential history, these closed-door events have tended to produce monumental gaffes. The deplorables remark, cling to your guns, the 47 percent — all came when candidates let their hair down in front of their favorite rich people.

Josh: Oh god, yes. I’d put it slightly differently: Candidates direct their comments to the interests of an audience, and these audiences have different interests than the electorate. Whether that’s harsher economic messages (“47 percent”) or excessively contemptuous cultural messages (“deplorables”).

Now, a disciplined candidate should be careful about that. This comes up in other situations too: You shouldn’t say something to an activist group you wouldn’t want in the paper, either. But yeah, it’s one less venue to screw up in.

Could Warren’s Aversion to Big-Money Fundraisers Hurt Her?