The 2018 midterm elections ended up being the most expensive congressional race to date, with well over $5 billion spent. But with the 2020 general election cycle underway, Democrats have bolted out of the starting gate, raising unprecedented sums.
ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising platform, reported that during the first quarter of the year, donors contributed roughly $175 million. That’s a big increase over the $111 million that was raised during the same period in 2017 — and more than six times what was raised in the first quarter of 2015.
But Democrats aren’t just raising record-breaking sums. They’re also successfully targeting small-dollar donors in what has become a growing portion of their financial base. According to ActBlue, the average contribution size was just over $32. Over 6,200 groups donated to Democratic candidates in the first quarter, more than twice as many that raised funds in the first quarter of last year.
“The strong fundraising totals that we saw across the board this quarter — from congressional candidates to state leg races to Democratic presidential primary contenders — indicates that small-dollar donors are more energized than ever before,” said ActBlue Executive Director Erin Hill.
She added, “there's no sign that the rate at which they are giving to Democrats is slowing down anytime soon.”
Relying on grassroots funding
According to Carrie Levine, a senior political reporter for the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, Democrats have made grassroots funding a pivotal part of each candidate’s campaign. The organization has tracked millions of contribution records since January 2017 to analyze ActBlue’s impact on the Democratic party.
Levine says that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) set grassroots fundraising thresholds in order to qualify for the early presidential debate stages. She says small-dollar donor bases are able and willing to give repeatedly, preventing “donor fatigue.” It’s a strategy that Hill echoes.
“These aren't max-out donors,” Hill said.
“Small-dollar donors gave an average of $32.29 in Q1 of 2019, which means that one individual donor can give again and again throughout the cycle when they're excited about what the candidate is talking about or want to show their support, and our data tells us that donors are only more likely to give the further into the cycle we get,” she said.
With 20 candidates that have officially announced, the Democratic field is starting to head toward its saturation point. But despite so many candidates dividing the donor pool, it’s clear that from first-quarter fundraising numbers that Democratic donors aren’t feeling the strain.
Joe Biden, the most recent — and long expected — candidate to announce raised a staggering $6.3 million — in just 24 hours. That’s more than Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised in her entire first quarter, according to her latest FEC filings. The Massachusetts senator pulled in $6 million.
Leading the charge in grassroots fundraising is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raked in $18.2 million in Q1. Behind him is Sen. Kamala Harris, who raised $12 million. Mayor Pete Buttigieg capitalized on his rising popularity and became one of the top fundraisers, bringing in some $7 million.
But despite the eye-popping sums, Democrats will have a steep hill to climb if they want to outraise President Trump. The president has been campaigning since the day after his 2016 election, and is racing toward the 2020 election with roughly $41 million in cash on hand. He raised $30 million in the first quarter alone.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has said the campaign plans to raise and spend over $1 billion for the 2020 election.
Republicans have struggled to activate small-dollar donors with the same success as Democrats, relying more on large donations. But unlike other Republican candidates, Trump has raked in money from grassroots fundraising and merchandise sales. But Levine said this hasn’t translated into success for other Republican candidates.
Republicans have “seen the sheer number of Democratic donors grow,” Levine said. “And I think they’ll start to look at that.” She noted that Republicans are attempting to create an ActBlue for the GOP, dubbing the small-dollar fundraising platform “WINRED.” The idea is in its infancy, and it’s unclear how successful WINRED will be. It has already hit a stumbling block over data protections. Past attempts to create a Republican version of ActBlue have failed.
With a Democratic field so large and fundraising starting so far in advance of November 2020, will candidates have a harder time trying to fill their coffers?
Hill doesn’t believe so.
“Small-dollar donors are not a zero-sum game, and we've seen more and more people take action by making a small-dollar contribution every cycle,” she said.
“In just the first quarter of the year, 543,000 new people signed up for our ActBlue Express program so they can give again with a single click,” said Hill. “We expect a lot more people to be taking action as this election cycle continues.”
But Levine said that at “some point, donors will stop wanting to give to multiple candidates.”
“How long until the field consolidates?” she asked. “The question is how long the field can support that many.”
And once the primary field narrows and Democrats pick their nominee, an even bigger fundraising question looms.
“There is a lot of energy around the Democratic party around taking back the White House,” Levine said. “Even if your candidate isn’t the nominee — do all the dollars consolidate around that nominee?”