WASHINGTON -- There's big money in thinking small.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren raked in more cash over the past three months than any of their rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it's not because they've been working the big-donor fundraising circuit.
The Vermont and Massachusetts senators have upended the way Democratic presidential candidates can raise tens of millions of dollars. Rather than spending time — and considerable financial resources — traveling the country to schmooze with wealthy donors, they're raising money through small donations made online.
For Democratic activists who revile the influence of money in politics, the third quarter numbers from Sanders and Warren are powerful reminders of the influence progressives hold in the primary.
But the small dollar phenomenon may be overstated because many of the biggest Democratic donors haven't taken sides in the crowded primary. And the ultimate nominee will still likely need to turn to traditional ways of raising money to compete against President Donald Trump who, along with the Republican National Committee, has already raised hundreds of millions of dollars to support his reelection.
"The biggest problem that we as Democrats have to face is that this is a war — and I don't believe in unilateral disarmament," said Bakari Sellers, a Democratic commentator and top surrogate for California Sen. Kamala Harris. "Trying to beat Donald Trump with small dollar donations? That's about as good as an ashtray on a motorcycle."
Third quarter fundraising numbers don't need to be reported to the Federal Election Commission until Oct. 15 and not all candidates have released theirs. But most have, including all of the top tier contenders.
Sanders leads the field, so far, pulling in $25.3 million, with Warren's $24.6 million close behind. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came in third with $19.1 million.
From there, the drop off is steep. Former Vice President Joe Biden pulled in $15.2 million, while Harris raised $11.6 million. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker raised about $6 million. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock brought in $2.3 million while Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet pulled in $2.1 million.
Warren and Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, have run unabashed progressive campaigns, energizing the grassroots base by championing free health care and forgiveness of college debts. The centrist candidates, meanwhile, have tried to put a damper on that, warning that it would cost too much or lead to a massive tax increase.
While Biden and Harris spent much of the summer courting big donors, Warren and Sanders kept up intense campaign schedules where they communicated directly with voters. After a campaign rally, Warren poses for selfies with supporters, who often lined up for hours waiting a turn.
The fundraising numbers suggest that Sanders and Warren are doing well because they've tapped into the party's progressive fervor. But some longtime Democratic finance leaders caution that the numbers are less about policy differences and more about which candidates have connected most effectively with voters.
Many of the centrist candidates come across as "boring," said Rufus Gifford, the former finance director for Barack Obama's 2012 campaign.
"The firebrand narrative can certainly raise you money, but it's about more than centrist vs. lefty," Gifford said. "It's the way you talk about your idea and whether people feel it's real."
Tom Nides, a Democratic donor and former deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, said the dynamic could change as the field winnows and big donors who have held back decide to choose a candidate to support.
"There is an enthusiasm gap with high-end of fundraisers. Many have torn loyalties," Nides said. "They support one candidate, but like the other and there's not a clear front-runner."
Biden's third quarter total is about a $6 million drop from what he raised after entering the race in April. He's kept up a steady schedule of high-dollar fundraisers, but his small-dollar operation sputtered after a promising early start, an analysis of campaign finance data shows.
"One shouldn't get tied up in a knot about the money today. Joe Biden's success or failure will not be determined by the amount of money he raises," Nides said.
"Establishment candidates generally don't do particularly well online. It's not dissimilar to who does well on Twitter," he added, referring to the social media platform of choice for some of the party's most outspoken progressive voices.
Still, Warren and Sanders' success has equipped the populist candidates with a massive cash advantage just months before voting begins in Iowa.
"While the media and political pundits spent the last several months casting doubt on Sen. Sanders' chances at winning the White House, the working people of this country are ignoring conventional wisdom from Washington" said Sanders' campaign manager Faiz Shakir.