Democrats and Joe Biden’s campaign bring in millions from Regular Joes
Washington D.C. political strategists are the first to notice a trend in election fundraising and they have seen evidence of a very powerful trend since the 2016 Presidential election. The trend? Remarkable growth in the amount of money raised by small dollar donors.
It’s not that small dollar donors have just arrived on the scene; they haven’t. Barack Obama’s election and re-election campaigns, leveraging the power of social media and the internet, along with mailing lists, ramped up efforts to cast a wider net for funding.
The focus took on expanded momentum during the 2018 mid-term election cycle. And the emphasis on small dollar fundraising is seen as part of a workaround strategy to counter the outsized influence of wealthy campaign contributors and corporations in elections which was entrenched by the Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision in 2010.
The spike in small money donors in 2018
Democrats outraised Republicans in some of the most competitive House races in 2018 by more than $78 million. About 40% of that gap in fundraising came from small donations of $200 or less.
According to Ipsos, donations of $51 to $200 and above, constitute 28 percent of GOP collections from donors and $5 and under contributions account for 10 percent of their intake.
By comparison, Democratic campaign money from donations of $51 to $200 and above, represent 22 percent of funds raised, but Democrats receive 26 percent of their contributions from those sending $5 or less. Overall, roughly half of Democratic donors gave under $20 on average, while the majority of Republicans donors gave amounts of $20 or greater.
This, according to political strategists, signifies a contrast between the two parties in terms of how the contributions influence the legislative agenda and who and what drives it.
It’s not as though Donald Trump’s campaign machine hasn’t arrived at the epiphany that up until recently, the hordes of people who worship Trump and buy all manner of absurd Trumpabilia at campaign events, are a likely source for small dollar donations – they have.
However, even with the populism on steroids that Trump serves up non stop – his re-election campaign war chest still consists of slightly less than half of the $200 and under contributions.
Despite the fact that this is impressive by Republican standards, it pales in comparison to the results realized by the determined and organized effort of Democrats, the bulk of which centered around digital media and donor list building, primarily emails.
Bernie gives grassroots fundraising a B-12 shot
As an example, in the first quarter of 2019, when the nomination race for president on the Democratic side began ramping up in earnest, Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign took in $18.2 million.
The amount was impressive, but what was particularly remarkable was where it came from. Over 80 percent of the money was from contributors writing checks or charging their credit with gifts to the Sanders campaign for $200 or less.
Sanders wasn’t alone. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign reported average contributions of $36.35. Elizabeth Warren’s boosters averaged $28 per donation. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign touted their candidate not “taking a dime from PACs, special interests, lobbyists and corporations.”
While Obama was seen as the trail-blazer for the shift in tactics toward a broader base of contributors, Senator Sanders not only took the baton, but he incorporated it as a narrative in contrast between himself and the Republican party, painting them as captives of billionaires and corporations.
The Democratic party followed suit. You likely noticed that the Democratic National Committee made the metric of average donor amount, a prominent criteria alongside polling, to qualify for inclusion on the crowded debate stage during the primaries.
Why the focus on small donors, since this is not a traditional strategy in national elections? Part of it – a large part, is messaging.
A candidate reinforces their image as an independent player, not beholden to large money special interests, by emphasizing not only campaign finance reform, but by highlighting their connection to Main Street America and the working class.
Voters, especially Democrats, are enamored with the political trope of “grassroots” – an intentional optic that reinforces their positioning as the “party of the little guy”, even though that badge, in the estimation of some inside and outside the party, had grown tarnished in recent decades.
Nothing symbolized that degrading of the image more forcefully than the accounts of Hillary Clinton attending closed door confabs and paid speeches with the financial elite on Wall Street, such as Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank (whose dealings with Donald Trump, we are still struggling to bring to bear the disinfectant of sunlight upon).
AOC crashes the party
The functional restoration of the image of the egalitarian values of the Democrats was exemplified by the emergence of a revolution within the power structure of the Democratic party, namely that associated with the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or “AOC” in the 2018 mid term elections.
After the morale killing manipulations at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, in which many Democrats saw what they identified as a betrayal of their change agent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, enthusiasm among many Democrat voters dissipated, which was seen by many election analysts as a strong contributing factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss in battleground states.
Ms. Cortez stunned the Democrat establishment by defeating 10 term incumbent, House member Joe Crowley in the 14th Congressional District of New York, by 15 points, despite virtually the entire weight of the party and the special interests intertwined with it being on the side of Crowley and an 18 to 1 funding disadvantage favoring her opponent.
During the campaign, Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, “You can’t really beat big money with more money. You have to beat them with a totally different game.”
The “different game” is best described by Ocasio-Cortez following her primary win yesterday against a U.S. Chamber of Commerce funded opponent:
Wall Street CEOs, from Goldman Sachs to Blackstone, poured in millions to defeat our grassroots campaign tonight.
But their money couldn’t buy a movement.
Thank you #NY14, and every person who pitched in for tonight’s victory.
Here’s to speaking truth to power. pic.twitter.com/g9aRV3Cu1B
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 24, 2020
The surge in small donor contributions is managed primarily by ActBlue an online funding appendage to the Democratic party and intersecting activist organizations since 2004 and which has, in the last 16 years, raised nearly $5.4 billion in such modest contributions. They account for 55% of the small dollar contributions to the party and its candidates.
Growth in the last 6 months has been explosive, adding one billion to the overall total since the end of 2019.
They also have accumulated a donor list with payment data of over 10 million unique and active donors. The Center for Public Integrity, provides an example of the motivation behind Democrat small money donors:
“I’m not a big-bucks contributor, but I did know what I could do is try to be as effective as possible by looking at races around the country,” said William Nottingham, 68, a retired newspaper editor who lives in Los Alamitos, California, and has given $7,600 since the beginning of 2017. Nottingham said he looked for races in the South and Midwest with “good candidates.”
“I can’t get in the car and drive to Kentucky and campaign for someone like Amy McGrath,” a high-profile Democratic challenger campaigning for a House seat, “but I can sure send her a couple of bucks now and then.”
All of this brings us around to Joe Biden. Biden’s campaign reports that in May, they hauled in $80.8 million dollars, a good portion of which originated with small donor contributions – the average donation – $30.
Biden, earlier this week, participated in an online fundraising event with former president Barack Obama and pulled in $4 million in donations, an average of $25 per donor.
Lily Adams, a spokeswoman for Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Biden explains the sudden surge in contributions from donors large and small all over the country:
“The series of crises and inflection moments the country is facing is spurring donors to get into the game far earlier and far more generously than they were planning. Folks are watching this president bungle crisis after crisis … and thinking how traumatic it would be to have four more years of this. It energizes them to give.”