Democratic presidential hopefuls feel pressure to raise enough funds to sustain campaigns

With less than three months to go until the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are feeling the heat to raise enough money to keep their campaigns alive. 

“You have to have enough money,” said Robert Shrum of the University of Southern California. “If you’re looking at Iowa with New Hampshire eight days later and then quickly after that Nevada and South Carolina, you need the resources to compete in those places.” 

Dozens of donors enjoyed a white-tablecloth dinner, an open bar and sweeping views of the U.S. Capitol in October when Elizabeth Warren strode on stage to headline a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. 

The setting was similarly swanky in August, when Warren addressed party contributors at the ornate Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. And it's likely to be much the same in December, when Warren is slated to headline another party fundraiser in Boston.

The Massachusetts senator has become a leading Democratic presidential candidate ( in part because she has pledged to forgo events with high-dollar donors, which has resonated with progressives who believe wealthy donors have outsized political influence. But Warren has a notable exception for fundraisers that take in big money for her party, a practice she plans to continue if she becomes the Democratic nominee to take on President Donald Trump.

Bernie Sanders, Warren's chief rival for the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party, also is shunning large-dollar fundraisers in the primary. He hasn't headlined a party fundraiser, but his campaign says he would attend such events in the general election as long as they are grassroots driven and open to low-dollar donors.

Warren's campaign said it hasn't made final decisions on how she would conduct party fundraisers as the nominee.

Joe Biden says he’s now open to accepting super PAC money, which will open the door to wealthy donors to help carry him through the primaries. 

In October, Biden raised $5.3 million through a surge of online contributions that rolled in after Trump launched unfounded attacks against the former vice president over his son's Ukrainian dealings.

The swell of cash came from 182,000 donations, with $28 being the average amount given, according to figures which did not include money that Biden raised through big-dollar fundraisers. It comes after his internet fundraising operation stumbled over the summer, leading critics to suggest he lacked grassroots support.

"All of the Trump attacks have started to catalyze. More people understand what is at stake," deputy campaign manager Pete Kavanaugh said in an interview. "People out there are seeing Joe Biden getting attacked day after day. They understand he needs to fight back.“

The fundraising boost comes amid growing anxiety over Biden's campaign from would-be allies in the Democratic establishment, who have fretted about his prospects following underwhelming debate performances, middling fundraising success and withering attacks from rivals in his own party and from Trump.

Biden reported raising a less-than stellar $15 million during the third quarter, which ended in September. Though his support has shown no sign of cratering in public opinion polls, the amount was millions less than what Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts took in at the time.

Biden also spent more than he took in during that period and reported having only $9 million in cash on hand at the end of September. His campaign says that's partially due to start-up costs to build out his online operation.

"We knew we were going to have to spend money and we were comfortable with that," Kavanaugh said. "You always want more money. But we believe we had made the right decision. We'd rather end with $9 million on hand than not make those investments.“

In the wake of the new numbers, Cory Booker has put out an urgent call for donations. 

Kamala Harris announced a major shake up in her campaign with staff lay-offs and reorganization of resources. She is transferring staff in an effort to salvage her prospects in the Iowa caucuses.

The move, which comes roughly three months before the caucuses formally usher in the Democratic contest, make the California senator the most prominent candidate so far to announce a major campaign restructuring. 

All in all, Trump still has more cash on hand than the top three Democratic candidates combined. 

Raising money for the party will be an especially urgent task in 2020. Whoever wins the primary will inherit a party that is $7 million in debt and has been outraised almost 5-to-1 by Trump and the Republican National Committee, which pulled in more than $300 million this year alone.

Analysts say that for those Democrats who will be competing down to the wire, it will come down to who spends their money most wisely.

“It’s not having the most money, but if you don’t have sufficient resources to compete to get your message out there, to have organizers on the ground, to sustain your operation, you’re going to be in trouble,” Shrum said. 

The Associated Press and Stringr contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.