04/04/2019 11:47 PM AEDT | Updated 06/04/2019 1:53 AM AEDT

'Unspoken Sexism' Dampens Fundraising For Women Running In 2020

Photo Illustration: Isabella Carapella/Huffpost; Images: Getty
Democratic women candidates face donors who are flat-out skeptical of all the women.

A tricky gender pay gap is emerging in the race for donor dollars in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.

There are so many women running that they’re losing any advantage that being the sole female candidate would confer. Meanwhile, the women candidates are coping with sexism in the fundraising process, according to the donors and activists who spoke to HuffPost.

As the executive director of Women Donors Network, Donna Hall oversees a group of more than 250 progressive female philanthropists who give away about $200 million a year and contribute “sizably to campaigns.” She said each of the four female senators running ― Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar ― have at least one donor in her network who is “all in” for them. Other donors are staying out of the presidential race, for now, giving money to other causes like advancing voting rights.

Hall was adamant that a woman could win the White House. “We feel the time has come,” she said. “There’s certainly a desire among our members to see a woman elected.”

But there are definitely donors who lean the opposite way and are flat-out skeptical of all the women.

“It’s been really hard. Donors who jump in early want a safe bet and see women as risky bets,” one Democratic organizer told HuffPost, declining to be named because of her relationships with some of the candidates.

It’s been really hard. Donors who jump in early want a safe bet and see women as risky bets.Democratic organizer

Though resistance to a woman is less of an issue now than it was in 2016, there are still donors reluctant to give to a woman, said Tom Sacks-Wilner, a New Jersey-based bundler for Kamala Harris who organizes and collects campaign contributions from other donors. 

“It’s a little more open,” he said. “Clinton’s campaign helped shatter the glass ceiling.”

Sacks-Wilner said he’s brought in about $200,000 so far for Harris. He expects that number to be higher by the time he has to report donations to the Federal Election Commission. The deadline is April 15.  

With such a large field of candidates in play a lot of donors are giving to multiple candidates, he said. Some are waiting to see if former Vice President Joe Biden is in or out. “A few of mine are saying if he doesn’t enter they’ll donate to Harris.”

It’s perhaps a telling sign of the sexism in political fundraising that a relative unknown, longshot like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was able to raise $7 million in the early months of his campaign (more than half of which came in through contributions under $200, according to his campaign). The far more established Harris took in $12 million, likewise largely composed of smaller donations.

“I think women have to be perceived as more qualified, more experienced, more knowledgeable than men generally do,” Aimee Cunningham, a supporter of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and a Democratic donor from Austin who helped start the local Electing Women Alliance affiliate.

Like many other campaign watchers, Cunningham mentioned the higher bar women have to clear to win elections. The “misogyny” women grapple with when running for election “absolutely” extends to the fundraising arena.

“It is more uncomfortable for women to ask for money,” said Cunningham.

There’s also the matter of media attention: The female candidates appear to have been getting less of it, some campaign watchers said.

“I do think that the women are getting covered less on cable. I think that contributes as well. When you’re in the news less that will impact fundraising,” said a Democratic strategist with one campaign who declined to be identified.

“And yeah, you don’t have one woman candidate for women who want to elect a woman president to gravitate to ... but I honestly don’t know how much of an impact that is or is not having,” the strategist said.

Whether the female candidates’ fundraising efforts were truly stymied will become more clear later this month when the Federal Election Commission releases fundraising numbers.

Already some data is emerging that seems to suggest a gap. On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders’ campaign said it raised $18 million over the past three months, $6 million more than Harris and likely far more than Sen. Warren, who is reportedly struggling to raise funds.

Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke said Wednesday that he hauled in $9.4 million in just 18 days after he announced his candidacy; less than Harris but still a notable sum collected over a far shorter timespan. 

Most campaign experts attribute Sanders’ and O’Rourke’s leads to well-developed nationwide fundraising networks ― and a dash of celebrity.

Earlier this year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she wouldn’t tap traditional big-donor fundraising tactics like events with big donors, going farther than the other Democratic candidates who have eschewed corporate or PAC money.

Warren has nationwide name recognition from her days as a fierce combatant against the big banks during the financial crisis; however, she only took in $299,000 on her debut day. (Earlier this year, Warren said she wouldn’t tap traditional big-donor fundraising tactics like events with big donors, going farther than the other Democratic candidates who have eschewed corporate or PAC money.) Sen. Klobuchar’s campaign said she raised $1 million in her first 24 hours.

Of course, it’s early. The four female senators in the race are all “prolific fundraisers,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. And they all have money left over from their 2018 campaigns.

The challenge right now is that there are so many women, it’s hard to be distinctive. “When you’re just looking back at 2016, Hillary had that runway all to herself. And she was definitely able to capitalize on that.” Fifty-two percent of Clinton’s donors were women, Martin adds.

In interviews and focus groups, women candidates at all levels expressed discomfort with the process of asking for money, in a 2014 report put together by the nonpartisan organization Political Parity. Leading women candidates could sometimes end up raising as much money as male candidates, but they often had to ask for donations more times to get there.

“When you run for office, you have to be willing to call complete strangers and say “Hi I’d like $2,800 from you,’” said Brianna Wu, a software engineer, who ran for Congress in Massachusetts last year and plans to give it another shot in 2020. “Fundraising is a process that demands you be aggressive.”

Women, according to stereotypes, are not supposed to be aggressive, she said, putting them at a disadvantage.

Wu said she was frustrated to see some of the male candidates pull ahead in online fundraising. “It was frustrating to me to see people like Bernie and Beto with a shallow command of the issues pulling in so much money,” she said. “I think it speaks to the unspoken sexism in the Democratic party with fundraising.”