RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This early in the 2020 presidential campaign, the candidates have choices to make. One of them is how to raise their money. Here's a place where the Democratic contenders all agree. They are not going to accept cash from corporate political action committees. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Like other new presidential candidates, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand last month announced she's running and then headed to Iowa. Standing in front of some big barrels at a Des Moines brew pub, she laid into Washington and what was wrong with it.
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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: The way Congress works, the way Washington works is that money in politics is corrupting. It controls everything.
OVERBY: Her speech built to a pledge.
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GILLIBRAND: You've got to take on the whole system, and you have to get money out of politics. And that's why, as a very small first step, I'm taking corporate PAC money.
OVERBY: Tiffany Muller is president of End Citizens United, a political action committee that's been urging Democrats to swear off corporate PACs.
TIFFANY MULLER: Every candidate who has announced that they are running for president has said that they will not take any corporate PAC money.
OVERBY: One possible reaction to this - so what? Political scientist Jennifer Victor of George Mason University follows the political money trails.
JENNIFER VICTOR: You know, in some ways, the commitment for a presidential candidate not to take PAC money is a really weak commitment because presidential candidates generally don't take much PAC money.
OVERBY: In the 2016 presidential race, Florida Senator Marco Rubio led the field in PAC fundraising. Still, all of his PAC money, not just from corporate PACs, amounted to barely 2 percent of his total campaign funds. What's happening now is at least the start of a pivot. More than half of the newly elected House Democrats say they don't want corporate PAC contributions. In effect, they're moving beyond traditional fundraising. The business of combing Rolodex is to build fundraising networks, and they're branding themselves to raise money online. Muller said that when End Citizens United did polling after the midterm elections...
MULLER: Independent voters told us that cleaning up Washington and cleaning up corruption was the No. 1 reason why they chose who they voted for. So I think these presidential candidates understand that.
OVERBY: Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, a senator from California, have both renounced money from corporate PACs and federal lobbyists. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren does that and goes further, rejecting all PACs left or right. These three candidates all disavow superPACs even though, legally, a superPAC can't work with a candidate anyway. And they emphasized small donor money. In the 24 hours after Harris announced, her campaign raised $1.5 million online, an echo of the midterm elections. But Taryn Rosenkranz of the digital fundraising firm New Blue Interactive said things will look different this time.
TARYN ROSENKRANZ: The grassroots is going to be, you know, much like the electorate, spread thin across so many different candidates.
OVERBY: She said in the early weeks, the small donor totals may amount to an ad hoc straw poll. But in the long run, they likely won't supply enough cash to fully fund a White House bid. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.