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Small Donors Hold The Key To Campaign Buzz And The Democrats' Debate Stage

Sen. Bernie Sanders, appearing at a campaign stop in Concord, N.H., raised about $6 million in the first day of his 2020 presidential campaign, which was evidence that he has maintained strong grassroots support.
Steven Senne
Sen. Bernie Sanders, appearing at a campaign stop in Concord, N.H., raised about $6 million in the first day of his 2020 presidential campaign, which was evidence that he has maintained strong grassroots support.

As Democratic presidential hopefuls seek to grow the small-donor juggernaut that fueled the party's takeover of the House of Representatives last year, the Democratic National Committee is giving them a firm shove, offering slots in the presidential primary debates to candidates who build a broad fundraising base.

"I really believe that we're at our best when we're connecting with people," DNC chair Tom Perez told MSNBC recently. "That's how we won in 2018, and frankly that's how Barack Obama won in 2008. And that's exactly what I think this will incentivize."

The incentive is a place on the debate stage for any candidate who has 65,000 donors, with at least 200 donors in each of 20 states. It's the only way so far to qualify for the debates — a polls-based standard is yet to come — and so the candidates are zeroed in on it.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, interviewed last week on WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., vowed to turn away contributions from corporate PACs. He then added that his stance "is one of the reasons why I should mention we're really counting on folks at the grassroots fundraising level, if they want me to be on that debate stage."

In the wake of the 2018 outpouring of small-donor cash, candidates would be wooing them anyway. But there are other advantages, as well.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also on MSNBC, said small donors are more likely to engage in nonmonetary ways, "so that when we're really up against it in the general election, it's not just money to fund television ads. It's all the folks who'll do the door-knocking. It's all the folks who'll make the phone calls."

The only available fundraising numbers are from the candidates themselves, bragging about the sums they raked in on the post-announcement bounce. The first reporting period of the 2019-2020 cycle ends March 31.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke both claim to have raised around $6 million within 24 hours of declaring. They're also the two candidates with strong national fundraising operations already developed, O'Rourke from his Senate bid last year, Sanders from the 2016 presidential primaries.

California Sen. Kamala Harris said she raised $1.5 million in the first day. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington each claimed $1 million during the first 48 hours. Warren reportedly raised $300,000 on launch day, and Buttigieg's campaign said he took in more than $600,000 after a CNN town hall broadcast.

All of these numbers might mean less as the money chase continues. Gregory Berlin, a partner at the digital consulting firm Mothership Strategies, said, "I don't think it's fair to compare someone who had a very large national list and someone who didn't, and use that as a proxy for how well they're doing."

And the Trump re-election campaign will be more daunting than the often-unprepared Republican congressional candidates last year. In the 2016 cycle, the Trump campaign grossed nearly $19 million from donors giving $200 or less.

"The person who has raised the most money from small-dollar donations ever is Donald Trump," said Erin Hill, executive director of the Democratic digital fundraising platform ActBlue. "And so in order to be able to field a competitive campaign, our nominee is going to have to have a really strong grassroots base."

ActBlue went through explosive growth in the 2018 cycle, bringing in $1.6 billion. Hill said 65 percent of its donors were new. She said, "I would assume that this particular quarter will be one of the lower quarters in terms of small-dollar turnout that we're seeing, and it's already shaping up to be pretty historic."

Some Democrats are already looking ahead to the general election. The online fundraising site Swing Left offers donors a way to contribute now to the yet-to-be-chosen Democratic nominee. It's called the Unify Or Die Fund.

"I think we'll see a lot of focus on, especially as the field starts to winnow a little bit, a focus on unity, and supporting the eventual nominee," said Ethan Todras-Whitehill, executive director of Swing Left.

Meanwhile, candidates search for ways to entice donors. John Delaney, a millionaire and former congressman from Maryland, has what he calls the Delaney Debate Challenge. As he explained in a campaign video, "For every $1 you give me, I am personally going to donate $2 to a number of charities, and you get to pick."

Delaney's fundraising project is legal because his $2 payments bring no benefit to the campaign donors, going to a group of 11 nonprofit organizations and charities, ranging from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to Everytown for Gun Safety.

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Corrected: March 22, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said Elizabeth Warren raised $300 million on launch day. She reportedly raised $300,000.
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.