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

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Washington, D.C., on June 9. Although he didn't win the nomination, Sanders' grass-roots fundraising has broken records.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Washington, D.C., on June 9. Although he didn't win the nomination, Sanders' grass-roots fundraising has broken records.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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