Small donors boost Beto and Bernie – and may transform the political landscape

Why We Wrote This

Democrats are eschewing corporate PAC money and riding a massive wave of small-dollar donations. Reform advocates say the trend could give average voters more power to shape the political conversation.

John Locher/AP
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent seeking the Democratic nomination, speaks at a rally in Henderson, Nevada, March 16.

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Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke told reporters in New Hampshire Wednesday that 128,000 people gave his campaign an average of $47 on his first day in the 2020 race. That follows Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders reporting last month that 223,000 people donated an average of $27 in the 24 hours after he announced his candidacy. 

Both men are riding a surge in grassroots giving that is transforming the entire landscape of money in American politics. For the first time since a 2010 Supreme Court decision opened the way for corporations and wealthy individuals to make unlimited donations anonymously, grassroots donations of $200 or less eclipsed such “dark money” in the 2018 elections.

Now, the 2020 Democratic field is emphasizing small-dollar donations as a sign of credibility and accountability, with most candidates rejecting corporate PAC money. Advocates of campaign finance reform say the shift has the potential to generate a more inclusive style of governance. “This is clearly a new era in many ways,” says Michael Beckel of the nonprofit Issue One. “It means more people will be participating; more people will have skin in the game; more and more people will be shaping the conversations.”

Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders raked in so much cash within 24 hours of announcing their presidential bids that they made Barack Obama look like a kid with a lemonade stand.

Their massive fundraising – $6.1 million in a day for former Texas Congressman O’Rourke and $5.9 million for Vermont’s Senator Sanders, roughly a quarter of what Mr. Obama raised during the entire first quarter of 2007 – is not just about them or their rock-star status. Both men are riding a surge in grassroots giving that is transforming the entire landscape of money in American politics.

Mr. O’Rourke told reporters in New Hampshire today that his average donation during that period was about $47; for Mr. Sanders it was $27.

For the first time since a 2010 Supreme Court decision opened the way for corporations and wealthy individuals to make unlimited donations anonymously, grassroots donations of $200 or less eclipsed such “dark money” in the 2018 elections.

Now, the 2020 Democratic field is encouraging this trend, emphasizing small-dollar donations as a sign of credibility and accountability, with most candidates rejecting corporate PAC money. Advocates of campaign finance reform say this shift toward grassroots fundraising has the potential to generate a more inclusive style of governance, improving American democracy.

“This is clearly a new era in many ways,” says Michael Beckel, research manager at the political reform nonprofit Issue One in Washington, D.C. “It means more people will be participating; more people will have skin in the game; more and more people will be shaping the conversations” – and the issues that politicians decide to prioritize.

Grassroots fundraising eclipses ‘dark money’

Individual donations of $200 or less more than doubled from 2014 to 2018, to nearly half a billion dollars. During the same time period, the proportion of dark money to small-dollar donations went from 90 to 100 percent to about one-third, according to a Christian Science Monitor analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.  

“I think it’s returning power in our democracy back to where it belongs, which is with the people,” says Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director of End Citizens United, an organization advocating campaign finance reform. "It is making it so the size of your wallet is not what determines the size of your voice in government, because [government] is really supposed to work for everyone.”

In the 2010 Citizens United case, the Supreme Court overturned decades of legal precedent by determining that political spending is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Most conservatives support the decision and oppose campaign finance regulation on those grounds. They also are wary of efforts to push dark money groups to disclose the names of donors, citing privacy concerns after conservatives were targeted by the IRS and others for their political donations.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who recently announced he is running for president, campaigns at New Hampshire's Keene State College on his first visit to the early primary state on March 19.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to support the idea that just as citizens should have equal weight in voting – that is, one vote per person, regardless of background – they should likewise have equal weight when it comes to spending, so as not to unduly influence politicians in favor of wealthy special interests.

That philosophical difference about campaign finance was reflected in an asymmetrical rise in small-dollar donations on the Democratic side in the 2018 midterms, but Republicans are hoping to adjust the balance.

How ActBlue transformed giving

To a certain degree, the surge in grassroots fundraising is driven by technology, particularly on the left. ActBlue, an online platform for Democratic fundraising, helped liberal groups raise $1.7 billion in the 2018 cycle – nearly half the total amount spent in the election. The average donation was $39.

“There’s no question it’s easier to do now than 15 years ago. But I don’t think it’s just the ease with which people can donate, because the internet works for both parties,” says Mr. Burgwinkle of End Citizens United. “Democrats have really done a good job of cultivating these small-dollar donations.”

That proved crucial in the “blue wave” that enabled Democrats to win back control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In competitive 2018 House races, Democratic challengers raised more than their incumbent opponents, who traditionally have a significant fundraising advantage.

“That is extremely unusual. It’s a first,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “This has never happened before, and it was fueled in significant part by small donors and even a bigger part by ActBlue.”

Republicans raised less than a third as much as Democrats in small-dollar donations in 2018, due in part to the lack of a platform like ActBlue. In January they announced their answer to the fundraising platform, called Patriot Pass, which they hope will boost grassroots fundraising on the Republican side.

So far the only fundraising numbers for 2020 candidates are those released by the campaigns themselves. The public’s first glimpse into total donations and spending will come April 15, after the FEC releases first-quarter data. Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Rourke are likely to have among the highest totals of grassroots fundraising. 

That shift has been driven in no small part by Mr. Sanders, who proved in 2016 that it was possible to run a viable presidential campaign largely on grassroots donations.  

“Bernie Sanders was able to raise an astonishing amount of money and be competitive against the Hillary Clinton money machine because of the power of small donations,” says Mr. Beckel.

Of all the sitting U.S. senators, Mr. Sanders commanded the highest percentage of small-dollar donations in his latest election, and his supporters appear ready to continue the trend. After he announced his 2020 candidacy last month, the Sanders campaign reported that 223,000 people donated an average of $27 each within 24 hours. 

Mr. O’Rourke, dressed casually in a white collared shirt with a v-neck sweater and slacks, arrived 20 minutes late to an event Wednesday at an inn in Claremont, New Hampshire, packed with dozens of voters eager to hear what the Texan had to say. None interviewed by the Monitor had committed to supporting him.

He told reporters his campaign saw 128,000 people give an average of $47 on his first day – which confirmed Mr. Sanders’ earlier assertion that the Vermont senator likely had a broader base of donors (though of course Mr. Sanders had the distinct advantage of having already run a national campaign). 

The Sanders campaign has portrayed the number of grassroots donors as a key indicator in determining which of the many Democratic candidates could best defeat President Donald Trump.

“The first FEC report is going to send a message about who is the best candidate to beat Trump,” his campaign wrote to supporters, asking for a $3 donation. “Each one matters. A lot. So please chip in today.”

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