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‘The new straw poll’: 2020 candidates race to build small-donor armies

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) $ 80 million 2018 Senate run broke fundraising records and places him among a small group of 2020 hopefuls who can raise massive amounts from small donors. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Elections

Five potential candidates already won backing from hundreds of thousands of online donors in 2017 and 2018.

Democratic presidential contenders are already locked in an important battle to showcase their viability, racing to build digital armies to power their campaigns.

Online support is set to play a pivotal role in the Democratic primaries, after small-dollar donors using ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform, financed the Democratic House takeover — and, before that, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ underdog 2016 presidential campaign. Potential candidates have spent months building up grassroots digital supporters to fund their campaigns in 2019 and build relationships with voters before they get the chance to go to the polls in 2020.

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t air a single TV ad in her campaign for reelection in New York last year, instead spending more than half her campaign budget with a firm specializing in digital fundraising. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) dropped over $ 1.2 million on Facebook ads targeting grassroots supporters nationwide since May 2018, the fifth-most of any Democrat — even though Harris wasn’t running for anything last year. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) received donations from people in all 50 states within hours of announcing her presidential exploratory committee on Monday, she told reporters.

The small-dollar fundraising totals that candidates reap this year will be one of the few credible signs of momentum for candidates, months before primary votes are cast, in an era in which polls can bounce around wildly and media attention is split among dozens of candidates and a Twitter-happy president. Small contributions, most of which will come in online, will even be a benchmark for entrance into primary debates, the Democratic National Committee said last month.

Small-dollar fundraising totals will be “the new straw poll” in 2019, said Taryn Rosenkranz, a Democratic digital consultant. She added: “There are so many candidates running, all with similar policy platforms, meaning that small-dollar donations will be one of the best measures of a candidate’s strength for a year when we won’t have many concrete indicators.”

Already, five Democrats have set themselves apart as particularly high-powered digital fundraisers: Gillibrand, Harris, Sanders, Warren and — ahead of the rest — former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), whose $ 80 million 2018 Senate run broke fundraising records. All five received contributions from at least 200,000 unique online donors in 2017 and 2018, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission records filed by ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform. (O’Rourke’s Senate campaign racked up over 700,000 unique donors via ActBlue.)

Gillibrand and Warren each raised over $ 10 million online while running in noncompetitive Senate races. While O’Rourke, Warren and Sanders — whose 2016 presidential campaign raised nearly a quarter-billion dollars — rose to national prominence with prodigious support from small donors, Harris and Gillibrand spent the past two years transforming their political operations so they are powered by online supporters, who provided the majority of their campaign committees’ funding in that period.

“Small-dollar donors are going to pick the Democratic nominee,” said Erin Hill, ActBlue’s executive director. Because of the “unprecedented volume” of online money expected to flow to Democrats in 2020, Hill said she expects ActBlue to double its staff of 100 over the next two years.

“We’ve already seen candidates announcing [their 2020 plans] directly to” online supporters, Hill said, citing Warren’s decision to announce her exploratory committee in an email to her list.

Warren has already made it clear that she’ll use her commitment to grass-roots fundraising as a wedge in a crowded primary. Warren told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday that Democratic primary voters should say “no to the billionaires, whether they are self-funding or funding PACs.”

“Is this going to be a Democratic primary that truly is a grassroots movement that is funded by the grassroots … or is this something that’s just going to be one more plaything that billionaires can buy?” Warren said, taking shots at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and philanthropist Tom Steyer, two ultra-wealthy potential candidates.

Beto O'Rourke

The contrast could extend to non-self-funding candidates, too.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has also generated excitement for a potential presidential bid among Democratic activists, though he has not yet built the same following among online donors as his potential rivals, FEC records show. But Steve Phillips, a prominent Democratic donor, has already pledged to raise $ 10 million for a super PAC to boost Booker — and other Democratic candidates could benefit from super PAC support as well.

Meanwhile, Warren has rejected outside support, as she did in her first political campaign in 2012. O’Rourke also rejected outside spending in his Texas Senate race, a road map he could follow again in a potential presidential bid.

Relying solely on small-dollar donors presents its own risks. “That’s scary,” said Preston Elliott, a Democratic consultant. “If you lose any momentum, or there’s a feeling you might lose momentum, then that money can dry up very quickly.”

Yet if other candidates follow the Warren and O’Rourke model, then “it certainly diminishes the power of the millionaire donor class,” said Jordan Woods, political director of End Citizens United, a liberal group working to reform the campaign finance system. “The donors who write $ 2,700 checks and ‘max out’ to candidates will still matter and be a part of their fundraising plan, but they may not matter as much.”

A majority of candidates will take an “all-of-the-above” approach to fundraising out of necessity to support grueling, expensive campaigns, several digital strategists said.

“They’ll need to do it all: grassroots fundraising and traditional fundraising,” said Greg Berlin, a Democratic digital consultant. “But that small-dollar number, more than any other contribution type, signifies real momentum.”

Rachel Maddow

But the million-dollar — or maybe billion-dollar — question hangs in the air for 2020 candidates: How will grassroots donors react to a vast field of candidates, including several candidates they may have contributed to in the past?

“Nobody knows that yet,” Berlin said.

Some operatives warned that the prospective candidates are “used to sending out an email and just raking in money for themselves,” but they could be in for a “rude awakening,” said one prominent Democratic fundraiser, who was granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.

“Most donors will beg off giving for a month or two, but if they do give now, there will be no exclusivity on bundlers, no exclusivity on big donors and there’s not going to be any exclusivity on small dollar donors ” the fundraiser continued. “The competition for dollars will be fierce, and it’ll be playing out at a whole new intensity for the grassroots.”

But Hill, ActBlue’s executive director, noted that the pool of Democratic small-dollar donors, which exploded in size in 2018, could still grow.

Sixty percent of ActBlue’s donors in the 2018 cycle were first-time givers, Hill said. “There’s no ceiling on this.”

Scott Bland contributed to this report.

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