June 01, 2020
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Joe Biden touts small-dollar donors in 2020 grassroots bidding war

Michael Dwyer | AP
Michael Dwyer | AP
Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden interacts with a supporter during a campaign stop at the Community Oven restaurant in Hampton, New Hampshire, May 13, 2019.

Joe Biden got 97 percent of the contributions to his presidential campaign in amounts of less than $200, his campaign announced, leaving out a key detail: how much that added up to.

The former vice president, like many of the other 22 active candidates running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is touting his success with small donors as an indicator of grassroots support from voters. It’s become almost as important as poll numbers as evidence of a candidate’s appeal.

Much of the information campaigns have voluntarily released on fundraising doesn’t provide as full a picture as the reports candidates are required to submit to the Federal Election Commission each quarter, and omit details about all the ways they are raising money.

With the spotlight on grassroots donors as Democrats emphasize their ability to raise money from sources other than big donors and corporate political action committees, candidates can camouflage large checks from wealthy contributors by citing the larger number of small-dollar donors, but not the actual dollar amounts.

In announcing her first-quarter totals, the campaign of California Sen. Kamala Harris said that 98 percent of her contributions came in amounts of less than $100. While small donors accounted for most of the transactions, bigger donors gave most of the money. Of the $12 million she raised, 63 percent came from donors who gave more than $200. Donors giving $1,000 or more contributed $5.8 million, FEC records show.

Small-dollar donors have been the critical component driving Democratic presidential fundraising so far. The 14 Democratic 2020 candidates active in the first quarter reported raising $71.5 million, of which $40.1 million came from donors giving $200 or less. Sanders raised $15.3 million from such donors, more than any other candidate, followed by O’Rourke and Buttigieg.

Biden’s campaign said Tuesday that nearly two-thirds of its donors have given less than $25, as of Sunday. It had its best hour online during his official campaign kickoff event in Philadelphia Saturday, when it took in more than $1,000 a minute. Some 8,000 teachers and educators had donated, the largest single occupation among donors.

The campaign didn’t say how much has been raised since bringing in $6.3 million on the day Biden announced or the actual amount that came from small-dollar donors.

Even with the emphasis on small donors, most of those seeking the Democratic nomination are also raising money with the help of the party’s bundlers, individuals whose networks of donors can combine to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to a candidate at a single event.

Since announcing his candidacy, Biden has held fundraisers hosted by big Democratic bundlers, including former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and Comcast Corp. executive David Cohen. Admission to such closed-door events is $2,800, the maximum amount an individual is permitted to donate to a federal campaign.

Biden’s not alone. Major candidates, including Harris, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg have gotten support from Democratic bundlers. Only Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have said they won’t raise money at in-person events with big donors.

Biden’s campaign says it’s enjoying rapid growth in fundraising. “We’re grateful for the overwhelming grassroots support we’re seeing through our digital outreach,” said Brandon English, a senior adviser to the campaign.

Because Biden didn’t enter the race until April 25, he won’t file his first official report on his campaign’s finances until July 15, the next FEC quarterly deadline. Biden’s campaign announced last month that he topped all candidates with his $6.3 million first day total, beating out O’Rourke, who raised $6.1 million, and Sanders, who took in $5.9 million the day he announced he was running.


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