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Democratic Presidential Contenders Look To Small Donations For Funding


Presidential candidates have to file their first campaign finance reports at the end of this month. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, Democratic candidates are taking a tip from last year's congressional races and asking for small donations.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Democratic candidates have a lot to say about and to small donors. Here's South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg last week on WMUR TV in New Hampshire saying he won't take money from corporate PACs.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: Which is one of the reasons why, I should mention, we're really counting on folks at the grassroots fundraising level, if they want me to be on that debate stage, to go on over to and lend a hand, at any level.

OVERBY: Torrents of small-donor money carried Democrats to a House majority last year. And now the Democratic National Committee says small-donor fundraising is one way candidates can get into the upcoming TV debates. The qualifying threshold is 65,000 donors spread among at least 20 states. Here's DNC Chairman Tom Perez on MSNBC.


TOM PEREZ: I really believe that we're at our best when we're connecting with people. That's how we one in 2018, and frankly, that's how Barack Obama won in 2008, and that's exactly what I think this will incentivize.

OVERBY: There may be other advantages besides money. Here's Senator Elizabeth Warren, also on MSNBC.


ELIZABETH WARREN: So that when we're really up against it in the general election, it's not just money to fund television ads; it's all the folks who'll do the door knocking, it's all the folks who'll make the phone calls.

OVERBY: The only numbers so far from candidates bragging about how much came in after they announced - Senator Bernie Sanders and former Congressman Beto O'Rourke both claimed around $6 million within 24 hours of declaring. They already have big lists of small donors. Four others were in the $1 to $1.5 million range - senator Kamala Harris, in the first 24 hours; Senator Amy Klobuchar and former governors John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee in the first 48. These numbers might mean less in the long run. Gregory Berlin is a consultant at the firm Mothership Strategies.

GREG BERLIN: I don't think it's fair to compare someone who had a very large national list with someone who didn't and use that as a proxy for how they're doing.

OVERBY: And even an army of Democratic donors is no guarantee.

ERIN HILL: The person who has raised the most money from small-dollar donations ever is Donald Trump. And so in order to be able to field a competitive campaign, our nominee is going to have to have a really strong grassroots base.

OVERBY: Erin Hill is director of the Democratic digital fundraising platform ActBlue. It saw explosive growth in the midterm elections, and Hill said the trend hasn't let up much.

HILL: I would assume that this particular quarter will be one of the lower quarters in terms of small-dollar turnout that we're seeing, and it's already shaping up to be pretty historic.

OVERBY: Some Democrats are already looking ahead to the general election. Ethan Todras-Whitehill is director of the online fundraising site Swing Left. It has a Unify or Die Fund, where donors can give now for delivery to the nominee after the primaries.

ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL: I think we'll see a lot of focus on - you know, especially as the field starts to winnow a little bit, a focus on unity and supporting the eventual nominee, and that's what our fund is here for.

OVERBY: Meanwhile, candidates search for ways to entice donors. John Delaney, a millionaire and former congressman, has the Delaney Debate Challenge. He explained it in a campaign video.


JOHN DELANEY: For every $1 you give me, I am personally going to donate $2 to a number of charities, and you get to pick.

OVERBY: The arrangement is legal because those $2 bring no benefit to the donor. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.


Peter Overby
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.