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President Joe Biden in Accokeek, Md., on April 19, 2023.
President Joe Biden in Accokeek, Md., on April 19, 2023.Nathan Howard / Getty Images file

Biden re-elect a new test for record-breaking small-dollar operation

Biden's campaign set small-dollar records in 2020, but a rematch against Trump pits him against another strong grassroots fundraiser.


When President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in 2020, he did so thanks in part to the most robust small-dollar fundraising operation in American campaign history.

Now, his newly announced re-election bid presents another high-stakes challenge for the Democratic Party and its standard bearer, all as he tries to weather lackluster poll numbers and energize his supporters around a potential rematch with Trump.

Biden's campaign didn't release early indications of how much money he raised in the early days of his campaign, a common campaign public relations tactic to tout an early show of force. But he's emphasized prioritizing his grassroots network that set records in 2020, tweeting out video of him calling a small-dollar donor and holding his first grassroots event Thursday.

During his 2020 campaign, Biden raised $656.8 million in contributions of $200 and under, per a new Federal Election Commission data tool that also accounts for money raised for his campaign from affiliated groups like joint fundraising committees. Trump raised $483.9 million by those same metrics.

Both men shattered small-dollar donation numbers from 2016, when Trump raised $126.7 million to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's $316.7 million. And whoever wins the Republican nomination will undoubtedly supercharge their own small-dollar network, like Biden did when he arrived back on the political scene after leaving office in early 2017.

But Biden starts with a clear advantage of being able to turn back on the spigot of a historic small-dollar fundraising operation.

Grassroots fundraising, particularly in the digital age where campaigns can solicit one-click donations, has become a mainstay of political fundraising, particularly among those who can do it well.

"At its most fundamental level, think of it as crowdfunding. It's uniting the power of your supporters to make sure that your campaign has the resources it needs to be successful," Eric Wilson, a Republican digital campaign veteran who is a senior vice president at Bullpen Strategy Group, told NBC News.

Small-dollar donors are a "good barometer of the health of your campaign at the grassroots level," Wilson added, since they aren't restricted from giving again under federal contribution limits, and typically are engaged either as volunteers or vocal supporters.

Biden was hardly a small-dollar giant when he launched his 2020 run. With Biden returning to politics after leaving office in 2017, and running as the principal candidate for the first time since 2008, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders outpaced the field among small donors during the Democratic primary, per an analysis from OpenSecrets.

But the future president leveraged his nomination into a historic small-dollar program in large part by emphasizing a contrast with Trump. So it's no surprise that much of Biden's initial re-election message focuses on Trump and framing Republicans as too extreme, attempting to up the stakes of his re-election bid to mimic his last campaign.

"The psychology of political giving, in particular, comes from an intense emotional reaction. So he's leaning into what any focus group, any poll, any data reaction and looking at numbers will tell you, which is that Trump will give an average Democrat, and any Democrat who has ever given before, an intense emotional reaction," Taryn Rosenkranz, a veteran Democratic digital strategist who runs New Blue Interactive, told NBC News.

"Like a hypnotist, you snap your fingers and it harkens you back to that moment," she said. "That's what he's trying to do: Give people the reality of that moment."

Rosenkranz added that by broadening the message to include all Republicans (Biden's announcement video includes images of a handful of GOP politicians), the Biden campaign likely hopes to evoke that same feeling no matter who wins the GOP primary. And she noted that Democrats have seen some donor fatigue in recent years, perhaps attributed to the economy or exhaustion after high-stakes elections, amounting to "Trump slump after what we saw for so long, a Trump bump."

But while Trump remains a motivating figure for Biden and Democrats, Trump is a dominating fundraiser in his own right.

He has a loyal legion of small-dollar donors that have helped him cement his power within the Republican Party. And Republicans have spent years demonizing Biden, as his poll numbers remain lackluster, which could help Republicans use Biden as a foil.

"Just like the prospect of Trump is a motivator for Democrats, I think Biden is also a motivator. To the extent you get down to a binary choice, and whether that's Donald Trump, I think you'll see Republican grassroots ready to support whoever the nominee is," Wilson, the Republican digital strategist, said.

But he cautioned that his research shows that while being against something (like Republicans are against Biden) is helpful for fundraising, candidates need to "complete the sentence" and give voters a cause to fight for if they want to maximize success at the ballot box.