Democrats are riding a massive surge of presidential campaign cash into 2020, boosting the party’s hopes of taking back the White House.
Their leading candidates for president faced criticism last year from party veterans alarmed by tepid early fundraising totals. But they finished up 2019 raking in cash from fired-up donors: The current Democratic presidential contenders and the Democratic National Committee combined raised over $450 million in the last year — more than President Donald Trump’s reelection machine brought in during that time.
Democrats are still encouraged by the money pouring in from both the progressive and moderate wings of the party, as well as from Democrats writing big checks and from small-dollar donors alike. Though the party is about to spend much of the money raised on a tough primary while Trump builds up resources to take on the eventual nominee, the millions of contributions to Democrats in $10 or $20 increments signal massive enthusiasm from the party grassroots heading into the election year.
“I was very nervous [in the spring] that these operations were not sophisticated enough to go toe to toe with Trump,” said Rufus Gifford, finance director for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. But Sen. Bernie Sanders’ massive $34.5 million fundraising total for the fourth quarter for the year put him within range of Trump, who brought in $46 million for his campaign — even while Sanders faces a crowded field of primary contenders competing for money in the days ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
“The idea that you’re within striking distance of an incumbent president — not considering the party fundraising — I think that’s pretty solid,” Gifford said. “You’ve got to feel encouraged as a Democrat. There’s obviously a lot of energy out there.”
They are up against a highly organized machine, including the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign, which has been up and running for more than a year to reelect Trump from its headquarters in Rosslyn, Va. Some Democrats have feared their nominee will never be able to catch up to Trump’s massive head start.
Several leading candidates announced their total fundraising for October through the end of December this week: In addition to Sanders, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised $24.7 million, former Vice President Joe Biden brought in $22.7 million and Andrew Yang raised $16.5 million. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has not announced her fourth-quarter fundraising total, but she told supporters in a December email she had raised more than $17 million at that point, less money than during the previous three-month stretch.
Altogether, the 11 Democratic candidates who are not self-funding their campaigns and the DNC combined to raise at least $463 million in 2019 (including at least $17 million raised last quarter by Warren.) That’s more than Trump and his allied committees, including the RNC, which brought in at least $402 million in 2019, though not all committees have reported their totals.
The candidates are using the cash to build armies of field staff and air television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and a slew of other states that will soon begin voting. In a memo sent to donors on Thursday, Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz said the campaign had spent $5.2 million on “our tech and digital infrastructure” alone since its April launch, which the campaign has used to work on its small-dollar fundraising and build up its reach on social media.
But their fundraising hauls are also an indicator of who is building momentum with Democratic voters. The small-dollar donations to Democratic House candidates in 2018 were an early sign of the wave that flipped the chamber last November. Now, Democrats hope the increasingly large sums raised by the candidates are a sign they can win the White House again.
The Democrats’ fundraising “says, to me, that there is out there a very strong appetite to support the Democratic nominee,” said Charles Adams, a Buttigieg donor and former U.S ambassador to Finland. “The resources will be available to that nominee to compete on even terms or better with Trump in the general election.”
Adams predicted Buttigieg’s powerhouse fundraising will not be hurt in the coming weeks by his feud with Warren, who attacked him repeatedly in December for holding a fundraiser with rich donors in an elaborate wine cave.
“Everyone knows that fundraising, for better or for worse, is an indispensable part of the political process in the U.S. I wish it were otherwise,” Adams said. “There’s no reason people who enjoy drinking wine shouldn’t be able to contribute.”
Sanders’ haul in the fourth quarter, which exceeded Biden and Buttigieg’s totals by about $10 million, elevated him even within the small group of other successful fundraisers in the 2020 field. Barring a late surprise, Sanders raised more money from donors than any other Democratic presidential candidate in 2019 — with an average donation of $18, illustrating the growing dominance of online contributors in political fundraising.
Sanders’ team, which has struggled to persuade voters that he is as likely to defeat Trump as Biden, is using his fourth-quarter numbers and his grassroots fundraising strategy to argue for Sanders’ electability. In an email to supporters this week, Sanders estimated that he would raise $1 billion from small-dollar donors in a race against Trump.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said there is no magic formula to his fundraising — “I would say it’s the lack of gimmickry” — and that his most successful days are typically debates, when voters simply hear his message unfiltered. He pointed to Sanders’ campaign kickoff email, which was a 1,500-word letter written by the Vermont senator that did not directly ask for money, as an example of the team’s straightforward approach.
“Any [other] digital fundraiser would have probably gone in and said, ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do it this way. That’s the wrong way to go about it. This email is too long. You have to put the dollar figure right here,’” Shakir said. “But that whole email series was very successful.”
A Sanders aide said the final days of fundraising quarters are also among their most successful: New Year’s Eve was the second-best fundraising day of 2019 for Sanders — better than the day after the 2016 Iowa caucuses — and $1 million from 60,000 donations came in during the final hours of that night.
Sanders has benefited from an experienced digital fundraising team, which includes three top staffers who were part of a 2016 campaign that set financial records. Tim Tagaris, a senior adviser to Sanders, is seen in political circles as trailblazer of small-dollar online giving.
Still, some Democrats wonder if the divide between moderates and progressives in the party will have an impact on fundraising — in other words, whether Buttigieg’s high-dollar donors would contribute to, say, Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders in the general election, or whether Sanders’ fans would continue to give to anyone else if he is not the nominee.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said a veteran operative of Democratic presidential campaigns. “Should Bernie not be the nominee, will people stick by in terms of making those million-dollar contributions or knocking on doors? Both are important and both are needed to beat Trump.”
Democrats may be worrying too much, however: Sanders has repeatedly said he would support whoever the nominee is, and recent Economist/YouGov polls show that 87 percent of his supporters said they will vote for the Democrat next fall.
Many on the left see Sanders’ and Warren’s fundraising totals as proving that their movement is exactly what is needed to take on Trump’s money machine: “This is showing that grassroots power is a force in politics and folks underestimate it at their own peril,” said progressive consultant Rebecca Katz.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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