The Washington Post recently ranked the top 15 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 and named Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders the number one overall pick. Former Vice President Joe Biden took the number two spot. Elizabeth Warren came in third with Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris also making the top six. I would argue that WaPo got it wrong.
Biden may be more likely to run than Warren, but he’s much cozier with Wall Street. For that reason alone, he belongs in third place, behind Warren. The reality is, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker, and Harris all face the same electability challenge as Hillary Clinton. If you follow the money, their pockets have long been filled with corporate cash from Party donors. There is rightfully a perception that these more establishment Democrats are bought and paid for.
Since 2005, over 15 percent of Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign funds came from PACs. Between 2011 and 2012, she received more money from Goldman Sachs than any other sitting Senator. Morgan Stanley remains one of her top five donors.
Since 2013, Cory Booker has PAC money to thank for 10 percent of his total campaign contributions. Booker came under heavy fire when he voted against one of Bernie Sanders’s amendments to import more affordable drugs from Canada. In doing so, Booker, who has taken over $400,000 from big pharma, tainted his reputation.
While only about 5 percent of Kamala Harris’s funds have been derived from PACs, large contributors have still made up an overwhelming 68 percent of her campaign dollars, compared to small contributors, who comprised just 20 percent. Time Warner remains her largest contributor to date. She, perhaps as much as Booker, is perceived by many progressives as the preferred choice of Democratic Party donors.
In this group of four, Joe Biden may very well be the least connected to PAC money. From 1989 to 2010, just about 3 percent of his funds came from PAC contributions. But as a Senator, Biden was criticized for his cozy relationship with credit-card companies, one of which emerged as his biggest corporate donor over 21 years.
By contrast, since 1989, nearly 100 percent of Bernie Sanders’s campaign contributions have come from individuals (small and large). In his 2016 bid for President, Sanders remained unique among his competitors in that he had no official super PAC. Instead, Sanders created a record-breaking grassroots campaign that garnered more individual donations, most of them small, than any other campaign in US history.
But Sanders is not entirely alone in his efforts to define the political purity test for Democrats. Since 2013, Elizabeth Warren has accepted less than 1.5 percent of her overall campaign cash from PACs and over 60 percent from small individual contributions. Before Sanders became a household name in the 2016 cycle, Warren was largely considered the most exciting anti-Wall Street firebrand in politics.
A 2016 Harvard poll found that, among millennials, getting big money out of politics was seen as the single most important way to address the country’s other issues. It’s no coincidence that Sanders and Warren are favorites among young progressives.
Believe it or not, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are united in their opposition to the influence that big money has on politics. In 2015, 84 percent of Americans reported that big money has too much influence on American politics. In 2016, 81 percent said the influence was worse than it’s ever been in their lifetime.
In order to defeat Trump, the opposition needs to appeal to as many Americans as possible, and you’re not going to do that if your nominee is in bed with Wall Street. In order to win in 2020, Democrats must first learn from their mistakes in 2016. While there were many missteps taken by the DNC, one of the most egregious was the post-Citizens United tactic of using big donor money to try to buy elections.
Sanders proved in the primaries that he could challenge Clinton without big money.
Trump didn’t even raise half as much as Clinton and he still won the White House. It wasn’t so much the amount these candidates raised, but rather, how they raised it that mattered. Large donors made up less than 15 percent of Trump’s campaign cash and 53 percent of Clinton’s, which no doubt helped Trump brand her as “Crooked Hillary.”
At a time when the vast majority of Americans want to get big money out of politics, the Democratic strategy for 2020 couldn’t be any simpler: get big money out of politics. However that strategy does not align with running Booker, Harris, Gillibrand, or Biden, all of whom have records of, and reputations for, taking special interest money. This doesn’t mean that Biden couldn’t beat Trump. I think he could. Nor does it mean that, if elected, Harris or Gillibrand would be beholden to their mega-donors. But each will be perceived as inauthentic when it comes to this core issue of money in politics. Running yet another Democrat who cannot walk the walk when it comes to campaign finance reform is akin to replaying 2016 and expecting different results.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Elizabeth Warren was number two on the Washington Post‘s article, when it was Joe Biden who was number two. This has been corrected now.