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Big-Dollar Party Donors Like Biden … And Warren

Knowing who the Democratic Party wants as the nominee can be difficult, especially with a field this large. Arguably, the party hasn’t even reached a conclusion yet this cycle. But this doesn’t mean we can’t look for clues as to where party elites might be leaning. There are, of course, endorsements from party leaders, and as I’ve written about for FiveThirtyEight, the preferences of early-state activists to consider, but there’s another metric we haven’t looked at yet — donors who contribute to both candidates and party committees.

These donors are different than, say, the army of small donors who have fueled Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign, as they have demonstrated a vested interest in both a candidate and the Democratic Party as a whole. Such donors tend to have both the party’s and the candidate’s interests at heart, and, at least in the past, other party resources tend to lean the same direction they do. As political scientist Hans Hassell argues in his book “The Party’s Primary,” these donors’ donation patterns can give us a pretty good idea of which candidate a party is leaning toward. Their support can often signal to other donors, endorsers and party actors that a candidate is to be taken seriously. (I wrote a bit about this previously at the political science blog, Mischiefs of Faction.)

So using the campaign finance data collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics for the 2020 presidential cycle, I compiled all the donations of $200 or more made to Democratic presidential candidates across the first three quarters of 2019, in addition to all the donations made to state or national Democratic Party committees during that same time period. I then grouped donations made to the candidates based on the following criteria:

  1. First, to establish a baseline, I looked at the share of all donors who gave to a candidate in 2019.Candidate contributions were included. ">1 (Because some donors gave to multiple candidates, candidates’ donor shares might add up to more than 100.)
  2. Then, I filtered that group to look at just those donors who gave to both a party committee and to a candidate — “candidate-and-committee” donors.
  3. Finally, I filtered that group of candidate-and-committee donors down to just the high-dollar contributors — individuals who gave at least $1,000 to a presidential candidate and also contributed to a party committee (although not necessarily $1,000).

If you add up the total number of unique donors — those who gave $200 or more to just one candidate — from each of the first three quarters of 2019, there are just over 131,000 donors in total. (Remember, though, that this isn’t the cycle’s entire universe of donors. There are thousands more donors who have given $1, $5, etc., but the Federal Election Commission doesn’t capture their donations in the same level of detail.) Only 3.5 percent of these donors have also donated to a party committee, and just 1.7 percent have given at least $1,000 to a presidential candidate. So even though these candidate-and-committee donors can help us understand where party elites may be leaning, we’re still talking about a pretty small slice of the overall share of Democratic donors this cycle

As you can see in the chart below, no single candidate has received an overwhelming share of donations from candidate and committee donors, high-dollar or otherwise. This should give us pause, as it’s more evidence that there isn’t a clear consensus yet, but there are some takeaways nonetheless. For one, although Sanders has a substantial share of overall donors (roughly 13 percent of the total), he has the backing of only around 5 percent of the candidate-and-committee donors, which could signal his lack of support from traditional party supporters. This isn’t necessarily damning for Sanders — the whole rationale for his campaign is about bringing new voices into the political system — but he is nonetheless not doing as well among those who traditionally exert influence in the Democratic Party’s nomination process.

Instead, candidates like Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and former Vice President Joe Biden have done well among these donors. (As did Sen. Kamala Harris, although enthusiasm for her dried up in the second and third quarters, which could help explain why she dropped out in early December — her campaign was low on cash.) Biden, meanwhile, has done very well among party-aligned donors after his entry into the race a month into the second quarter: Indeed, he dominated the field among high-dollar party donors (those who gave at least $1,000) in the third quarter.

But perhaps the most striking story is Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rise among these candidate-and-committee donors. She began in the number two position among these donors in the first quarter (Harris led) but shot up to number one by the third quarter, with nearly 40 percent of her donations from candidate-and-committee donors. Whether this will be true in the fourth quarter, at a time when her polling position has declined, remains to be seen, however. It’s also important to remember that Biden has maintained a decent edge over Warren in terms of the candidate-and-committee donors who have given at least $1,000 to a candidate, so these donors are also a significant area of strength for him.

So while this is yet another data point in favor of the idea that party elites have not really decided — they remain somewhat split between Biden, Buttigieg and Warren — Biden does have the healthiest advantage among donors who have given at least $1,000. This could indicate that the party is coalescing around him (even if his position as front-runner isn’t as strong or unanimous as that of some previous nominees) — but whether majorities of caucusgoers and voters will agree remains to be seen.


  1. Candidate contributions were included.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of the book “Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”