Other Democrats have dismissed the move outright as a kind of gimmick to frame her low fundraising numbers in a positive way. “It’s blatant expectations-lowering,” one aide on a Democratic presidential campaign told Politico. Some Democratic campaign staffers have also criticized Warren for giving herself an out in the general election. (Warren’s campaign declined to respond to the criticism.)
But even if Warren weren’t regularly courting wealthy donors, or is using the pledge as a smoke screen, it’s still significant, because it could put her at a financial disadvantage relative to other candidates and could further alienate her from contributors she may need in a general election. The move will increase the pressure on her campaign to secure more small, individual donations, a potentially tough task in a field that’s growing more and more crowded by the day.
Her team argues the pledge will free her up: “This is more time we can spend traveling the country, including the early [voting] states, grassroots organizing and talking to voters,” said one Warren aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely. Warren has experience pulling small-dollar donations: More than half of her campaign contributions throughout her career have been $200 or less, CRP reported. But she’s never fundraised this way on the scale of a presidential campaign.
Progressives, at least, seem thrilled that she’ll be more dependent on small donations. “Deciding to put all your eggs in the small-donor basket is impressive and different, and raises the stakes for other [candidates],” said Lisa Gilbert, the vice president for legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a progressive think tank and advocacy group in D.C. “It’s taking a leap and thinking you can win anyway.”
Indeed, Warren’s decision could put pressure on her fellow presidential contenders to respond with a similar ban on pay-for-access events, especially if it takes on the kind of progressive cachet the corporate-PAC pledge has. Swearing off these kinds of fundraisers would be especially difficult for the candidates who have historically relied more on larger individual contributions than on small donors, or candidates who are largely unknown. Warren has a “huge list [of donors] she’s built over multiple cycles,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who has advised many gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, including those of California Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Doug Jones of Alabama. “There are a bunch in this race who aren’t well known with the grassroots yet. To say they can’t [run if they do large-dollar fundraising events], it’ll be nine or 10 people who can’t run for president.”
So far, it doesn’t seem likely that many of the 2020 candidates will echo Warren’s pledge; for some of them, the big-ticket fundraisers have already begun. Harris, for example, has held several big-donor events since announcing her candidacy, and will reportedly attend another this month at the home of the Star Wars director J. J. Abrams. Gillibrand is reportedly slated to attend a fundraiser hosted by a top executive at Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, with tickets costing up to $2,800 a head. I contacted the campaigns of some of the most high-profile candidates who’ve taken the corporate-PAC pledge—including Harris, Gillibrand, Booker, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—to see whether they’ll follow Warren’s lead; they did not respond to requests for comment.