2020 Democratic hopefuls still relying on major donors

New debate rules have candidates chasing big money in order to attract small donations.

The rules to qualify for the Democratic 2020 presidential debates have overturned the way the candidates are fundraising. With campaigns required to hit donor thresholds to land on the debate stage, they’re scrambling for unique contributions from small donors. But in order to do so, they’re still counting on high-dollar backers.

Since the cost of acquiring a single new donor online can be as high as $70, campaigns are relying on large contributions to subsidize their drive for small donations. And, with nearly two dozen candidates still in the race, many significant Democratic donors have yet to make up their minds.

As Marc Stanley, a prominent Democratic donor and Dallas attorney, told Jewish Insider, “either you’re behind someone or you’re waiting for the field to narrow.” 

Stanley is supporting former vice president Joe Biden, but he noted that some donors are giving to a number of candidates. 

“In a primary like this, we all have lots of friends running, all of these senators running,” he said. “We all supported them for Senate, governor or vice president. They are all friends and I think we are all blessed with a great stable of candidates.”

Others like Greg Rosenbaum, a longtime Democratic donor, are playing the waiting game. 

“If I looked at the field of candidates and looked at everyone I had a personal relationship with, or have supported in past races in their careers, I would have probably given to more than 14 candidates,” said Rosenbaum. Instead, the prominent Democratic activist is focusing his attention on down-ballot races and waiting for the field of presidential candidates to be culled.

Part of the hesitation among bundlers, the donors who raise large sums of money for a campaign, is the risk of backing the wrong horse. Andrew Weinstein, a Florida attorney and major Democratic donor, noted that 12 years ago “it looked like a pretty brave risk” for him to back Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. But Weinstein, a Biden supporter, noted that “in retrospect, it’s less of a risk than people are taking now given all the candidates.”

With many prominent donors still holding out, the campaigns most reliant on small contributions — like those of Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — have been able to move forward with little need to find a balance between qualifying for debates and building the infrastructure needed to win the nomination. But others are struggling, including self-funding former congressman John Delaney (D-MD), who has resorted to offering to make a $2 donation to charity for every one dollar given to his campaign. 

For the first two debates, the Democratic National Committee required campaigns to either obtain 65,000 individual donors or to reach 1% in three different polls nationally or of early states. For the coming debates in September and October, the donor threshold has increased to 130,000 and campaigns have to reach 4% in four different polls. This forces campaigns to attempt to simultaneously appeal to the two very different groups: online donors and primary voters and caucusgoers.

One aide for a leading campaign noted that “the pursuit of high-dollar donors has become more important because of the need for the resources to get lower-dollar donors.” An aide on a different presidential campaign put it frankly: “You need bundlers in order to get small donor donations.”

This has forced campaigns to distort their spending in order to ensure they make the debate stage. The aide on one leading campaign said the rules have “certainly shifted resources for a number of campaigns away from more productive purposes.”  

One aide to a campaign on the bubble of qualifying for the next two debates told Jewish Insider: “If it’s a choice between a new staffer in an early state or investing in digital, there’s just more incentive to put that next dollar on a Google or Facebook ad.” The aide did note that sometimes there is a higher return than just a single $1 from an online donor, if the person is motivated to support the candidate beyond wanting them to appear on stage in a debate. 

But campaigns can’t simply ignore the debates and camp out in early states, hoping for an underdog victory.

Zac Moffatt, the CEO and founder of Targeted Victory and a former top strategist for Mitt Romney, estimated the benefits of debate participation at $7-$10 million. This means campaigns have no choice but to try to participate, even if it starves them of resources needed in the long-term.

Stanley told Jewish Insider that campaigns have to “walk and chew gum at the same time. Max-out donors are very important to a campaign and a breadth of small donors is equally important.”

But, for campaigns trying to balance both, it may be a sign of bigger issues. 

“My guess is candidates looking at how much it’s costing them to raise money,” Rosenbaum said, “are people who are not going to be standing at the finish line.”

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