Former Vice President Joe Biden will initially rely on a decades-old network of big donors if he enters the Democratic presidential primary contest as expected, in contrast to the small-donor base that many of his 2020 rivals are racing to build.
Mr. Biden’s campaigns in the 2008 and 1988 primaries netted a combined $18.5 million and were financed by big donors and public funds—which candidates in recent years have stopped using because of spending limits they trigger. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, fueled his insurgent 2016 presidential bid almost entirely with contributions of $200 or less, amassing $238 million in a little over a year... There is little evidence that Mr. Biden, 76 years old, has worked to foster a base of small donors in the two years since he left office. He has expressed concern to Democratic fundraisers that he won’t be able to make a splash with early online donations the way Mr. Sanders and other candidates have.The political action committee that Mr. Biden started in May 2017 to help Democrats spent more than $550,000 in digital consultants, but that investment barely paid off, Federal Election Commission records show. The group, American Possibilities PAC, received $923,000 from donors giving $200 or less, out of the $2.6 million it raised.
.. The PAC had been paying Blue State Digital, a firm founded by Joe Rospars, the chief digital strategist for former President Obama’s two presidential campaigns and now an adviser to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Biden, who has spent much of the past few years giving paid speeches and promoting his book, said he wants to fund his presidential bid on his own terms—and has ruled out well-funded help from outside his potential campaign. Representatives for Mr. Biden didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“I will not be part of a super PAC,” Mr. Biden said in a February appearance at the University of Delaware. “An awful lot of people have offered to help—and the people who are usually the biggest donors in the Democratic Party, and I might add some major Republican folks.”
Mr. Biden’s allies have been reaching out to their contacts in preparation for a campaign announcement, which could happen as early as Wednesday. Donors can give a maximum $2,800 per election.
Some of Mr. Biden’s longtime supporters are planning fundraisers for him soon after his likely campaign launch. Several donors said David L. Cohen, a Comcast Corp. senior executive vice president, is organizing a fundraiser that is expected to include former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and several top donors from the Obama and Clinton campaigns, planned in Philadelphia, where Mr. Biden has deep ties.
“The vast majority [of Obama donors] who I’ve talked to are with Biden—and have been waiting for him,” said Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia attorney and Democratic fundraiser who has committed to Mr. Biden.
Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and longtime Democratic fundraiser, said he plans to contribute the maximum to Mr. Biden “the second he announces.”
“He has a natural advantage with fundraising, but not a natural advantage in the digital universe,” said Mr. Harpootlian, adding Mr. Biden can use large checks like the one he will write to invest in a small-dollar online fundraising program.
The Obama donor network includes about 250 people who each raised $500,000 or more for his re-election bid. But those so-called bundlers, who aggregate donations and write lump-sum checks, aren’t acting in unison—some are writing checks to multiple candidates or have committed to other Democratic presidential contenders ahead of Mr. Biden’s announcement.