September 18, 2021

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Small donors give big money in 2020 election cycle

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In an election year estimated to cost around $14 billion, money from small donors makes up 22 percent of 2020 fundraising — up from 15 percent at this point in 2016. 

In what Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has called “the most important election of our lifetime,” small donor donations already total $2.8 billion — an unprecedented high considering the impact of COVID-19 on the American wallet. 

Biden has seen a high tally of these small donations from a dollars-only standpoint. At around $368 million, money from small donors makes up about 38 percent of Biden’s total. But President Donald Trump has seen a higher proportion of money raised from small donors, with 45 percent, or $268 million, of his total coming from contributions of $200 or less.

There are many reasons the expensive, closely-watched 2020 election cycle has seen record-breaking cash from small donors. Ultimately, it all boils down to a perfect storm of technological innovation, political polarization and voter engagement unlike anything the nation has seen before.

Technology’s influence — how text and email campaigns have drawn in small donations 

The rise in small contributions can in part be chalked up to an increased reliance on technology in the wake of quarantine and lockdown. Although most in-person fundraising events were cancelled or reduced in capacity, there was nothing to stop Democratic ActBlue and the GOP’s WinRed from appealing to voters for small donations of, say, $5 or $10 via text or digital ad.

And appeal, they did. According to RoboKiller — a service to combat unwanted robocalls and text-messaging spam — Americans received around 6 billion election-related texts from candidates, parties and interest groups between June and September. 

Messages from the Trump campaign fluctuate wildly between flattery and ridicule. Some attempt to persuade voters by telling them they’re among the president’s finest supporters, and that they’ve been specially selected to donate based on their proven track-record of patriotism. Others take a different tone, accusing recipients of not giving enough money, or alleging that their lack of donations proves they don’t care about America or it’s future at all. 

Biden’s campaign, which has solid support from large donors, recently made an appeal to small-dollar donors by “centering on their grassroots.” The campaign raised $26 million in the 24 hours following the announcement that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) would appear on the ticket as Biden’s running mate. Included in that tally were contributions from 150,000 first-time donors.

The Trump campaign alone is set to dole out more than 1 billion texts by Election Day. And if trends are any indication, the numbers are only going up; the 2.7 billion texts Americans received in September was nearly six times what they’d received three months earlier, according to RoboKiller. 

Texting is cheap and easy to use, and since Americans check their phones about 96 times per day, campaign messages are sure to be read.Leaflets stuck in mailboxes are easily thrown out and ads on the TV can be ignored, muted or tuned out. But texts are evergreen.

Messages churned out from peer-to-peer texting services are read between 70 percent and 98 percent of the time. The potential voters on the other end respond between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time. 

Texting is also a pandemic-friendly mode of conversation. With concerns about a second or third wave of COVID-19 and no end in sight, many campaign events have been limited and canvassers can no longer go door-to-door. Messaging, then, has become the new vehicle of marketing for candidates hoping to reach socially distanced voters in time for Election Day. 

Political emails — despite only being read around 20 percent of the time and responded to 6 percent of the time — are also playing a role in raising small donations. The Trump campaign has sent out aggressive, in-your-face emails that seek donations and are made out to come from the president’s adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric.

The use of surrogate cameos in emails and texts — the illusion that someone important is asking you directly to help or join them — is nothing new. It was pioneered by the Obama campaign in 2008 and became standard fare in time for the 2012 election. But the frequency of these messages in 2020 is certainly uncharted territory. 

To draw in supporters and build these lists of emails and phone numbers, campaigns are turning to Facebook and Google ads. Political committees have spent over $1 billion this year alone to advertise on these platforms, according to OpenSecrets’ online ads database

A Country Divided

Amid a sense of growing political polarization, more people have been getting politically involved, as well. Nearly 85 million have already voted early in 2020 as of Tuesday, Oct. 27. eclipsing 2016’s overall early vote total by at least 4 million. Because of the pandemic, far more voters have sent their ballots in via the mail or decided to vote absentee, and even last year before the pandemic, Americans were on track to be more engaged than ever before. 

All of this has contributed to unprecedented fundraising for Democrats this cycle. Staunch opposition to Trump among Democrats earned Biden’s campaign around $65 million from small donors, excluding donors to his joint fundraising committees, in August alone. This brought the total number of small contributions to his campaign up to $368 million — more than three times the amount of small donor cash Hillary Clinton raised through the entire election cycle in 2016.

Most of these small donations are funneled into campaigns through ActBlue and WinRed, fundraising platforms that make it easy to donate for Democrats and Republicans respectively. Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in September, ActBlue’s fundraising records were smashed as hundreds of millions worth of small-dollar donations flooded in.

WinRed, created in 2019, is somewhat behind. The platform had raised more than $620 million for GOP candidates and groups in the third quarter despite being only around a year old, according to Politico, but ActBlue took in more than WinRed’s three-month total in September alone.

With features like one-click donations, which save user’s card information, these platforms make donating easy and quick. ActBlue has been perfecting the art of ease of use since it launched in 2004, but now WinRed is doing it, too — and it has paid off big time for Republicans.

Small-Donor Money Flows into the Senate and House, Too

It isn’t just presidential candidates gaining big from small contributions. Donations under $200 make up 78 percent of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) $16.6 million fundraising haul. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and GOP House challengers in deep blue districts such as Lacy Johnson, Aja Smith and Joe Collins all get around 75 percent of their money from small donors. 

In general, Democrats outpace Republicans in fundraising for Senate races. This has been especially true in competitive elections in states like South Carolina, where Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison has raised $86.6 million to incumbent South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s $59.3 million, and Kentucky, where Amy McGrath has raised $84.1 million — some $30 million more than Sen. Mitch McConnell’s $53.4 million.

Harrison drew in an army of small donors last year, making himself competitive in an expensive bid against Graham. In the fundraising period from April to June 2019, two-thirds — or about $1 million — of Harrison’s campaign cash came from donors giving less than $200. 

Over the summer, McGrath also saw a rise in small donor funds coming to her campaign from both in and out of state. Small donors made up 16 percent of McConnell’s funds in comparison.

Both Democrats have taken advantage of their supporters’ enthusiasm to unseat Graham and McConnell. But this year, small donors have given seasoned Republican incumbents a boost, as well, though these contributions aren’t as high as their Democratic counterparts. Small donors now make up about 34 percent of McConnell’s campaign wealth — around $19 million. Graham’s campaign wallet is fat with $30 million in small donor funds, which make up nearly 46 percent of his total.

Democrats have also had a firm fundraising edge in the most competitive House seats — many of which were in districts that Trump easily won in 2016. Five-term Rep. Dave Schweikert, (R-Ariz.), for instance, has been vastly outraised by his Democratic challenger, Hiral Tipirneni. Schweikert raised $1.9 million to Tipirneni’s $4.9 million. In 2020, Schweikert received around $87,000 in small-dollar contributions — still only about 4 percent of his total. Tipirneni received just over $1 million from small donors, about 19.3 percent of her total.

With small-dollar donations fueling this election cycle, less has quickly become more. These contributions will undoubtedly play a role in who emerged victorious come Nov. 3.

Feel free to distribute or cite this material, but please credit the Center for Responsive Politics.
For permission to reprint for commercial uses, such as textbooks, contact the Center: [email protected]

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