WASHINGTON — The most coveted donor for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may not be a Wall Street financier or Hollywood producer, but a grade school teacher in the Midwest who chips in $25 a month to her favorite candidate.
Small dollars are a bigger deal than ever because they can help organize and engage a large and committed group of supporters who invest more than just money in a campaign.
"Small-dollar donors are going to be a pivotal part of this election, both strategically and practically," said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue, Democrats' central clearinghouse for online donations. "Small-dollar donors don't just give — they also vote, volunteer and tell their friends why they care about a candidate."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proved that his supporters, or at least 225,000 of them, are still committed when he raised a whopping $6 million on Wednesday, the day after launching his presidential campaign.
Rufus Gifford, who served as national finance director for President Barack Obama's re-election effort in 2012, called the haul "truly remarkable," noting on Twitter that he was skeptical Sanders could match his 2016 effort: "I was wrong."
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced raising $1.5 million on her first day in the race, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she brought in $1 million in her first 48 hours. The other candidates have not released numbers, but FEC data shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised about $300,000 online through ActBlue on New Year's Eve, when she announced her exploratory committee.
Sanders, of course, had a head start thanks to his previous presidential run, which helped him grow a donor pool the size of every other perspective candidate combined, according to a recent New York Times analysis.
But the good news for the rest of the current field of White House hopefuls is that there is now more opportunity than ever for left-leaning candidates to tap into grassroots fundraising — if they know how to.
"As donors get younger and younger, and people get more and more used to the internet, and campaigns get savvier and savvier, there is very real money available," said Teddy Goff, who was a top digital strategist on presidential runs by Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Goff recalled that as recently as 2012 people would call into the Obama campaign to make sure it was safe for them to donate online.
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Now, thanks to Amazon and everything else that Americans do online, digital financial transactions have become second nature. And thanks to President Donald Trump, Democratic voters are eager to open their digital wallets.
In last year's midterm elections, ActBlue processed more than $1.6 billion in online donations, up from $782 million in 2016 and $335 million in 2014 — a five-fold surge in four years. (Republicans just last month established their answer to ActBlue after years of false starts.)
And as donating online has become frictionless for Democrats, the party has grown increasingly hostile to traditional modes of funding campaigns and to big money in politics.
For the first time, the Democratic National Committee will allow candidates to qualify to take part in the party's debates if they can secure donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states. In the past, only candidates who registered a certain amount of support in the polls were allowed to participate.
"Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before," DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement announcing the change.
That's already altering some campaigns' strategies, with lesser-known candidates like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pursuing that path to the debate stage.
Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital firm Acronym, said smart campaigns make donors "feel a sense of ownership" in the campaign and give them other meaningful ways to engage, like by volunteering or posting on social media.
"You run the risk of thinking of digital outreach as an ATM for the campaign," she said. "You're missing a real opportunity to help amplify your message if you're not engaging people who are already raising their hand."
Meanwhile, big donors simply aren't as valuable as they once were, excluding groups that can take unlimited contributions like super PACs — and almost every major 2020 candidate has sworn off them already.
For Democrats, big checks also can come with a political cost, especially if they're written by people who work in certain industries that have been targeted by the left, such as finance, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.
While large donors may expect something in return for their largesse, from a photo-op with the candidate to an ambassadorship to France, someone who gives $5 is not counting on much more than a feeling of connection to the candidate and solidarity with other small donors.
For instance, Warren has recalled how during her first run for the Senate in 2012, a young man approached her on a subway platform late one night to tell her he was working extra hours to donate to her campaign every month.
"I felt as if he'd hit me with a spear right between the ribs," Warren wrote in her book, "A Fighting Chance." "Good Lord — this kid was working until nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and he was sending me money? I smiled weakly and said something along the lines of: ‘Uh, I’m doing OK in the campaign. Maybe you should keep your money. I'll be fine. Really.'"
But she says he looked back and replied: "No, I'm part of this campaign. This is my fight, too."
The first big fundraising test for every candidate will come at the end of March, when they have to file their first quarterly reports to the FEC. Early fundraising numbers are heavily scrutinized by party insiders and the media as a sign of a candidate's strength, and historically they have been a better predictor of success than early polls.
As Democrats fight their primary race and chase small-dollar contributors, they're not alone.
Trump's forces have spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since November alone to expand their list of supporters, and 75 percent of the money his campaign raised in the most recent quarter came from donors who give $200 or less.
"Realistically," ActBlue's Hill said, "our nominee is going to need to be primarily funded by grassroots donors in order to beat Trump, who already has widespread small-dollar donor support."