WASHINGTON—In the most crowded Democratic presidential primary in decades, candidates need money and lots of it. As multiple contenders try to dip into the well of traditional political donations, others are relying on newer approaches or their own wallets.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, is fueling his campaign with a swarm of small donations. He declined taking money from corporate political action committees (PACs), fossil fuel companies, and private, big-dollar fundraisers.
“The fact is that the candidates who are most morally indignant about this are the ones who don’t need [the extra cash],” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Sanders’ approach this time around builds on what he did in the 2016 presidential campaign. In 2019, he raised more than $60 million—over half of his total haul—from donations under $200. He brought in a total of $96 million, more than any other Democratic presidential candidate. President Donald Trump’s campaign brought in $143 million.
Donors gave more than $1 billion in small donations to Democratic candidates and groups in 2019, aided in part by the online platform ActBlue. In 2018, it funneled more than $1.5 billion to Democratic campaigns and groups. ActBlue reported that last year about 6 million people used it to contribute to various campaigns and organizations. Half of them were first-time users.
Initially, the Democratic National Committee took steps to incentivize the small-donor approach. In setting qualifications for debates, it specified that campaigns must demonstrate broad support by meeting a minimum number of donors as opposed to a minimum dollar amount. The DNC recently changed the rules, allowing self-funded candidates to make it onto the debate stage.
Two billionaires are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination by spending gobs of their own money on the race, most of it on advertising to gain name recognition. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the richest person ever to run for president, refuses to accept donations to his campaign. His most recent Federal Election Commission filing showed a grand total of $0.00 in “total individual contributions.” Businessman Tom Steyer is accepting individual contributions to his campaign but he’s not taking PAC money. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Bloomberg raised more than $200 million, 99.9 percent of it from his own pocket. He has about $55 million cash on hand. Steyer, meanwhile, raised $156 million and has almost $2 million in cash available.
Darrell West, the vice president of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution, said moderate Democratic candidates are struggling with fundraising this campaign season. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg are leaning on private fundraising dinners and PAC support. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts initially swore off PAC money but has since backtracked as she struggled to compete with Sanders to earn votes, and dollars, from the liberal wing of the party.
“It’s hard to raise money when there are several other candidates that are occupying the same political real estate as you are,” West said. “The moderates are dividing up their part of the political spectrum, while Sanders is dominating the progressive niche.”
West said Sanders’ strong stances give him the advantage of intense supporters. And people who give their donations $25 at a time are more likely to donate again and help sustain a campaign for the long term.
“If Sanders is able to get the nomination by relying on small donors, that becomes a … model for others in future years,” West said. “Candidates will understand that if they have intense support, the ability to fund an entire race through small donors is viable.”