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Small-dollar donors could hold the balance in 2020

Concerns about money in politics are empowering individual voters

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who entered the 2020 presidential race Thursday, collected almost half of his $79 million Senate haul last cycle from small donations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who entered the 2020 presidential race Thursday, collected almost half of his $79 million Senate haul last cycle from small donations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Poll after poll shows that a wide majority of Americans denounce the role of money in the nation’s political campaigns — so their behavior in response might come as a surprise: More Americans are donating to candidates, particularly in small-dollar increments.

Molly McCloskey, a 27-year-old who works in advertising in Chicago, said she ponied up several donations, none larger than $40 and most closer to $15, in last year’s campaigns to support Democratic candidates. “There were times where I felt helpless, so I donated,” McCloskey said. “It felt like some sort of action, like I was doing something.”

Even as voters decry a system they complain favors big-money donors and wealthy interests, they are investing more of their own cash in politics. These donors of small sums may hold the balance in the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns, which political operatives and campaign finance wonks say likely will shatter spending records. And many candidates are pursuing new ways to reach these donors.

In the absence of enacting a new federal campaign finance overhaul — a Democratic version passed the House on March 8 along party lines but is doomed in the Senate — individual voters are trying to harness the power of small donations as a way to challenge the influence they believe their larger counterparts monopolize.

“It makes people feel empowered,” said Ellen Weintraub, the Democrat who chairs the Federal Election Commission, which regulates federal campaigns. “Even with one dollar, five dollars, they’re literally invested. A lot of people are feeling fed up and that government is not responsive to them, and they’re wanting to take back control of their government.”

Candidates in the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are taking pains to portray themselves as in the pocket of ordinary voters, not big donors. Most have taken largely symbolic pledges to reject donations from the political action committees of corporations. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, in announcing his presidential bid Thursday, said his campaign “won’t be taking a dime” from lobbyists or PACs.

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Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced recently that in her quest for donations during presidential primary season, she would not offer the typical special-access events for high-dollar donors that most candidates in both parties do.

“Candidates for public office in America spend way too much time with wealthy donors,” Warren wrote in announcing her policy. During her campaign for the Democratic nomination, she will eschew “fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write the big checks,” she added, instead relying on her network of small-dollar donors. In the general election, however, such policies may not apply.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has said its presidential candidates may participate in televised debates during the upcoming primary season only if they meet a national polling threshold of 1 percent or if they’ve received small donations from at least 65,000 people in at least 20 different states — a move to motivate grassroots fundraising efforts.

All this comes as recent elections have hit all-time spending records. The tab for the 2016 House, Senate and presidential campaigns came in at $6.5 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the 2018 midterm elections — without a presidential race — totaled nearly that, more than $5.7 billion. For comparison, the congressional races by themselves in 2016 came in with a $4.1 billion price tag.

‘You’re getting screwed’

Those figures include spending by outside groups such as super PACs, which may collect unlimited sums from individuals and corporations — contributing to some voters’ growing angst with the nation’s campaign finance system.

“People object to that, and it’s not hard to look at that and think you’re getting screwed,” said Fred Wertheimer, who runs the campaign finance overhaul group Democracy 21. “If there are candidates who are giving them messages that reflect their interests and concerns, then supporting them, even though it’s small contributions, is a way of challenging the system in Washington — and that’s a big-money system.”

Democratic candidates and affiliated causes reported an uptick in small donations during the 2018 campaign cycle, including donations funneled through the ActBlue online platform. Republicans are working to devise a new digital conduit for small donations, too, including one dubbed the Patriot Pass.

President Donald Trump also tapped into small-dollar donors, reporting in his FEC filings that more than 25 percent of his 2016 political money came from unitemized donors — those giving less than $200.

The president’s re-election campaign so far has raised more money — $18.7 million — from small contributors than it has in individual donations of $200 or more, currently just shy of $9 million. On the other end of the political spectrum, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a darling of the progressive movement, brought in about 60 percent of her 2018 campaign’s $2.1 million in little installments.

The true believers

“Small-dollar fundraising is where the far left and far right come together. These are the true believers,” said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the FEC and onetime chief counsel of the Republican National Committee.

Though some political operatives worry that an uptick in small-dollar contributions could lead to further polarization among voters, Toner views it as a positive development.

“The increase in the total number of people making political contributions over the past 10, 15, 20 years has been one of the most positive developments in American politics,” said Toner, a partner in the law firm Wiley Rein. “A lot of these [small] donors are not going to be lobbyists in Washington. They’re not going to be corporate CEOs. They’re entering the system from a different vantage point. I think it’s very healthy.”

Small donors in both parties, then, may have different policy priorities from their big contributing counterparts. Smaller-dollar contributors tend to favor more populist ideas, such as upending long-standing business priorities like free-trade agreements.

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and an expert in election and campaign finance law, said small contributions to political campaigns can be “somewhat democratizing.” Still, he said, it’s not the same as public financing, which uses anonymous taxpayer money to help fund campaigns.

“It’s not the same as public financing because even small donations are skewed toward people who have enough to give,” Hasen said.

The volume of small donations can be a measure of enthusiasm about a particular candidate. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination again, said his campaign raised $6 million in 24 hours, at an average of less than $27 per donor.

Last cycle, Sanders and Warren were the top two Senate recipients of small-dollar donations as a percentage of their overall donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Sanders raised 75 percent of his $11.8 million in small contributions, while Warren brought in more than 55 percent from small donations for her nearly $35 million effort. O’Rourke collected almost half of his $79 million Senate haul in 2018 from small donations.

“Given that Democrats and women did comparatively well in small-donor fundraising, there is every reason to expect that trend to continue into 2020,” said Sheila Krumholz, who runs the center.

The Senate candidate with the third-highest percentage of small donations was Virginia Republican Corey Stewart, who is known for controversial policies, including his strong defense of symbols of the Confederacy. He lost his race.

Big v. little

Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, has studied trends in political money for decades and noted two countervailing forces in campaign finance since 2010. On one side, that year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC set the stage for super PACs, which have offered more pathways for the biggest donors’ money. On the other side, technology platforms such as ActBlue and other means of electronic donating have given rise to small donors.

People who give tiny donations also tend to be motivated to volunteer for campaigns or get-out-the-vote efforts, Malbin added. “I do believe that giving is not only an expression of feeling empowered, but it reinforces a feeling of engagement,” he said.

Malbin’s research shows, for example, that small contributions surged in the 2018 elections for competitive House and Senate races, shattering previous records with more than $200 million going to those races in small increments.

McCloskey, the donor in Chicago, said she felt motivated to give as a way of pushing back on the influence of mega-donors. “Smaller donors aren’t millionaires, but there’s probably more of us than of them, so hopefully we can all band together and make a dent,” she said.

Political money experts say the source of candidates’ campaign cash may make a difference in the interactions they have with voters and could, therefore, influence their policy positions.

Rep. Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat who raised some 85,000 donations under $200 during his 2018 campaign, said he didn’t do any big-donor “call time” after Labor Day during his race.

“The difference it made for me and my campaign was I was out in the field meeting voters, meeting my constituents,” Golden said during a press event earlier this year on money in politics.

Democrats’ plan to admit presidential primary candidates to the party’s debates based on grassroots donors, Malbin said, sends a signal that the party “wants candidates to be able to run a campaign without spending all of their time in boardrooms or receptions at rich people’s houses.”

When candidates raise money from small donors, they’re not typically spending much time doing so. Instead, such solicitations come from email, text and social media messages, giving candidates more time to mingle with people who aren’t the biggest donors.

“It allows them to take a policy position more freely,” said Adam Bozzi of the campaign finance overhaul group End Citizens United. When many small donors band together, he added, “This is one way where they can kind of stand up and try to make a difference.”

Once a donor, people typically give again, especially after campaigns have captured their contact information. McCloskey said she expects she’ll contribute even more in 2020 than she did last cycle.

“I get a lot of emails that are saying, ‘Donate $10,’ so it seems to be one of the strategies which I think is smart, and I’m also susceptible to,” she said. “I spend $10 on lunch and could just as easily give that to a candidate.”

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