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Will The Millions Of People Who Gave Money To Bernie Sanders Give To Democrats?

Jun 15, 2016
Originally published on June 20, 2016 2:12 pm

No other major party presidential candidate has ever made it through primary season financing a campaign the way Bernie Sanders has. The Vermont senator and self-described Democratic socialist did not throw swanky receptions to court donors who could write $2,700 checks, the limit allowed by law. Nor did Sanders encourage wealthy friends to launch a superPAC funded with unlimited contributions.

Instead, he relied on donors who gave small amounts online, over and over.

An unusual and recurring element of Sanders' boisterous rallies has been the recitation of the finance report. That's when Sanders boasts of the millions of individual contributions his campaign received, with the crowd roaring, "Twenty-seven dollars!" — the average donation amount, and a remarkably low number in campaign finance circles.

"What is revolutionary about that," Sanders said at a rally last month in Kentucky, "is we have shown the world that we can run a winning national campaign without being dependent on powerful and wealthy special interests."

While Sanders ultimately fell short of getting the delegates he needed to secure the Democratic nomination, his campaign has been revolutionary. Now the question is whether the revolution will live on, especially for Democratic candidates down the ballot?

The message and the money

Campaign manager Jeff Weaver recalled the heady days of last fall, "when we were looking at budgets, and looking at $30 million and thinking that perhaps we could get to 50."

A strong presence online was critical for Sanders. He delivered a strong, ideological message that resonated with his supporters. And he made them feel needed.

Donors understand that "that contribution is much more critical to the success of the campaign," Weaver said. "And you know, that feeling is justified, because it's exactly right. When you only rely on small donors, every one of those $27 [contributions] is critically important."

Sanders isn't the only candidate to score big with small donors this year. For Republican Ted Cruz, they gave $37 million, about one-third of the campaign committee's budget. Like Sanders, Cruz's financial success was due to a connection with voters who felt estranged from the party's establishment.

"[Cruz] had always been a favorite, and still is a favorite and a hero to the right, especially to the grass-roots side of things," said Trace Anderson, a grass-roots and finance consultant to Cruz. "But it certainly blew all of our expectations, in the terms of the dollars raised."

Unlike Sanders, however, Cruz also benefited from an armada of billionaire-backed superPACs that raised an additional $67 million.

A lucrative list

Sanders finishes the primary season with a fundraising list of some 2.5 million contributors, including legions of millennials new to politics.

"It's largely a younger list," said Anthony Corrado, a political scientist who studies campaign finance at Colby College. "I expect it includes many new donors that aren't amongst the traditional source of candidate or party finance."

But Corrado said it's not a given that the list can work magic for others. The variable, he said, is "whether they are largely Sanders donors, or whether he has tapped into a large cohort of progressive individuals who are going to be responsive to candidates who adopt progressive policy issues."

Sanders has already deployed the list to help 13 down-ballot progressives. The fundraising, with Sanders's imprimatur, was a success. But in the first contest for any of them, Lucy Flores of Nevada lost her House primary bid Tuesday.

Democratic fundraising consultant Mike Fraioli said he's skeptical the list's magic can be spread widely among Democrats. "It's tough to convert donors like that. I don't think it's a message that easily moves to another candidate or another committee."

With the uncertainty, many mainstream Democrats may still find it too scary to go after small donors, and abandon the tried and true big-donor approach.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In running for president, Bernie Sanders did something that seemed impossible. He ran a competitive campaign without taking any contributions larger than $2,700. NPR's Peter Overby set out to learn whether anyone else could do the same and win.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: One staple of Sanders' rallies has been the financial report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: In the last year, we have received over 7.3 million individual contributions.

(APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: This is Sanders' last month, the night of the Kentucky primary. He lost it by a whisker. When Sanders asked what the average contribution was, the crowd roared back $27.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: What is revolutionary about that is we have shown the world that we can run a winning national campaign without being dependent on powerful and wealthy special interests.

(APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: No other major party candidate ever ran a campaign like this. Sanders has raised more than $210 million. He relied heavily on donors who gave small amounts over and over. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager.

JEFF WEAVER: I do remember those early days when we were looking at budgets and looking at $30 million and thinking that perhaps we could get to 50.

OVERBY: He said small donor fundraising has to do with the message and the messenger. He said the donors understand.

WEAVER: That contribution is much more critical to the success of the campaign. And, you know, that feeling is justified because that's exactly right. When you only rely on small donors, you know, every one of those $27 is critically important.

OVERBY: Sanders isn't the only candidate to score big with small donors this year. For Republican Ted Cruz, they accounted for $37 million dollars, about one-third of the campaign committee's budget. Trace Anderson is a grass roots and finance consultant to Cruz.

TRACE ANDERSON: He had always been a favorite and still is a favorite and a hero to the right, especially in the grass-roots side of things. But it certainly blew all of our expectations in terms of the dollars raised.

OVERBY: But Cruz also benefited from an armada of super PACs. Walking away from super PACs and big donors is an unprecedented risk. But Sanders wound up with the fundraising list of some 2.5 million contributors. They're loyal, and Sanders' campaign is well known for pulling in millennial voters.

ANTHONY CORRADO: It's largely a younger list. I expect it includes many new donors that are amongst the traditional source of candidate or party finance.

OVERBY: Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College said there's also a big unknown about those donors.

CORRADO: Whether they are largely Sanders donors or whether he has tapped into a large cohort of progressive individuals who are going to be responsive to candidates who adopt progressive policy issues.

OVERBY: Sanders has already deployed his list to help 13 down-ballot progressives. The fundraising was a success. But in the first contest for any of them, a House candidate in Nevada lost her primary race Tuesday.

The big question is whether the Sanders donors will help fund a party that they say rigged the game against them. Democratic fundraising consultant Mike Fraioli.

MIKE FRAIOLI: It's tough to convert donors like that. I don't think it's a message that easily moves to another candidate or another committee.

OVERBY: From our mainstream candidates, it may be too scary to go after small donors and abandon the tried-and-true. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.