Joe Biden struggles to raise money in era of Zoom soirées

For large-scale donors to US presidential candidates, one of the biggest perks is the traditional photo-op, a picture shaking hands with a grinning nominee that can sit prominently on an office wall or a living room mantle. 

But in a global pandemic, Democrat Joe Biden has been forced to forgo not only the grip-and-grin photograph, but also the one-on-one chit-chat that comes with it. Instead, some of his fundraisers have been offering “rainchecks” — promises of some future perk — though one donor says that “what the raincheck is going to be convertible to is less than clear”.

As Mr Biden enters the final six months of his race against President Donald Trump, he is facing a yawning fundraising gap and little proven ability to raise the kind of small donations from the Democratic grassroots that fuelled the campaigns of his Democratic rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That has forced Mr Biden to rely on traditional sources of money — but without the opportunity to court well-heeled donors at Hamptons soirées, Manhattan cocktail parties or Hollywood galas.

In recent months, Mr Biden has picked up a number of influential donors who had previously supported some of the former vice-president’s rivals. Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who initially backed Pete Buttigieg, has donated to Mr Biden, as has Tony James, the executive vice-chairman of Blackstone who initially supported Amy Klobuchar.

However, some big Democratic fundraisers said the campaign had been slow to adjust to the new realities of fundraising as Mr Biden hunts for donations. At the end of March, Mr Trump’s campaign had $98.5m in cash on hand compared with $26.4m for Mr Biden’s.

“It’s a difficult fundraising environment,” said a prominent Democratic donor who gave to Mr Buttigieg and is now fundraising for Mr Biden.

“First, people are really scared about their health or the health of the people who are close to them. Second, a lot of people have economic problems. Third, you can’t put them in front of the candidate. For those three reasons you don’t have the level of responsiveness that you would normally have six months before an election.”

Like many businesses these days, Mr Biden’s campaign has been relegated to Zoom, where Mr Biden and a rotating cast of surrogates are beamed into wealthy donors’ iPhones and laptops.

There has been a Zoom call with more than 2,000 Obama White House and campaign alumni that raised more than $1m, and Zoom fundraisers divided by geography: Colorado, Minnesota, Florida and New England.

“A Fabulous Evening with Vice President Joe Biden” — via Zoom — raised $1.1m with the help of singers Melissa Etheridge and Kristin Chenoweth.

Hosts of a Zoom fundraiser with Hillary Clinton, scheduled for May 19, have been asked to contribute $100,000 each. Other donors are being asked for between $5,600 and $50,000 and a limited number of tickets have been set aside for those who give $2,800.

A person involved with the Biden campaign said it was preparing to test new fundraising measures ahead of the general election, such as deploying more celebrity surrogates, while acknowledging that the fundraising gap with Trump was a concern. “You have to be worried,” the person said.

“The Biden campaign has not really gone on a charm offensive of big donors yet,” said a second person involved with the campaign. “Partly because they were still trying to consolidate support from other candidates and also because they didn’t want to start asking for money in the middle of a pandemic.”

“Unless somebody has a personal beef with Joe, you should expect big ticket donors to start contributing once the race starts heating up again,” the person added. “Biden might not inspire donors as much as people like Buttigieg did but they know that if they want to get rid of Trump they will have to support him and they will.”

So far, Ms Klobuchar, another of Mr Biden’s Democratic primary rivals, has emerged as one of Mr Biden’s more prolific fundraising surrogates, three big Democratic donors said. Ms Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democratic senator, is among a short list of women Mr Biden is considering as his running mate.

A May 5 event that Ms Klobuchar hosted with Mr Biden attracted 625 people and raised $1.5m — the highest dollar amount for any of Mr Biden’s virtual fundraisers, according to a person familiar with the event. Ms Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, also hosted a lawyers for Biden event.

“She’s on a mission. She’s working really hard to be a viable candidate,” said a Wall Street investor who helped raise thousands of dollars for Ms Klobuchar during her campaign. Ms Klobuchar, he said, was “doing it for Joe as much as for her own personal ambition”.

While other Biden primary rivals have also helped to raise money for him — Senators Kamala Harris and Michael Bennett have taken part in virtual fundraisers — not all have been as successful in convincing their main donors that they should contribute to the Biden campaign.

The prominent Democratic contributor who first backed Mr Buttigieg said he had struggled to persuade supporters of the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — may of them new donors — to give money to Mr Biden.

Lev Sviridov, who raised more than $25,000 for Mr Buttigieg but has not raised money for Mr Biden, said there was a divide between Democrats who had donated both to Mr Buttigieg and other candidates, and those who only gave money to Mr Buttigieg.

“If you look at Pete’s character it was all about investing in the future, and how things could be versus how they are,” he said. “No one believes [Biden] is the future.”

The fact that Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, had pledged to back Mr Biden’s candidacy also had turned off some Buttigieg donors, Mr Sviridov said. “Most of the them say: ‘Oh what’s the point. He’s going to have a billion dollars anyway.’”

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