Small-dollar donations explode in the Trump era

Small-dollar donations explode in the Trump era
© Getty Images

An explosion of small-dollar donations has become an increasingly powerful force in campaign politics, reflecting the sharp partisan divide under President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE.

On the Democratic side, liberal fury with Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress has been reflected in the form of millions of low-dollar donations to Democratic candidates in House and Senate races.


Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who is challenging Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill Strategist behind Warren's political rise to meet with O'Rourke: report Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform MORE (R-Texas), has raised more than $25 million this year through ActBlue, the Democrats’ online fundraising platform that solicits small-dollar donations.

But Trump is backed by an army of small-dollar donors of his own. His campaign committees reported raising more than $18 million between July and September, bringing the total raised this year for his 2020 reelection bid to $106 million — much of that from small donors.

The surge in the number of small donors — those who give $200 or less — is a reflection of the deepening political divide in the U.S., according to strategists, one fueled by deep Democratic rancor toward Trump and heated attacks by conservatives against the liberal left. 

It also marks a stark change in how campaigns are financed as regular voters push back against the influence of outside groups and wealthy mega-donors in politics, and instead increasingly opt to donate to candidates and causes themselves, said Adam Bozzi, the communications director for End Citizens United, a Democratic group that pushes for campaign finance reforms.

“People understand the reason why Washington doesn’t work — the root of the problem is the money in politics,” said Bozzi.

“I think voters are trying to take ownership of the problem.”

Bozzi added that the increase in small-dollar contributions has been enabled by websites like ActBlue, which have made donating to campaigns more accessible.

Through the third fundraising quarter of 2018, Democrats have raised more than $1 billion through ActBlue, with an average donation of $38.53, according to an analysis by End Citizens United.

Unlike higher-dollar contributors, small donors don’t have to be disclosed individually.

Democrats point to the surge in low-dollar contributions as evidence that the party has shifted the paradigm for campaign fundraising away from a reliance on the coterie of wealthy donors and outside groups that have leveraged outsize influence in politics for years.

In turn, they say, the party has effectively mapped out a new model for funding campaigns.

"The fact that challengers are raising this kind of money without being self-funders or taking corporate PAC money — it sort of reinforces that this is a new model for how we fund campaigns," said Navin Nayak, the executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“I think the other big takeaway is a lot of these candidates have pledged not to take corporate PAC money and I think this backs up the idea that there’s a ton of enthusiasm for candidates who are going to reject corporate PAC money.”

Between July and September, more than 70 Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbents in some of the country’s most competitive House races, according to a recent analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings by The Hill.

That fundraising surge for Democrats in the third quarter of 2018 was fueled in no small part by low-dollar donors.

Many Democratic candidates on the trail have touted these small-donor contributions and have vocally rejected contributions from super PACs and other big-money organizations.

In the race for Kansas’s 3rd District, for example, roughly 27 percent of individual contributions to Democrat Sharice Davids came from people giving $200 or less.

For her Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderNew House GOP campaign chairman lays out challenges for 2020 Dems play ‘Let’s make a deal’ with Nancy Pelosi Incoming Dem Sharice Davids announces support for Pelosi MORE, only about 3.4 percent of his individual contributions came from small donors, according to the candidates’ most recent FEC filings.

Likewise, 43 percent of individual donations to Democrat Randy Bryce, who is running to replace retiring House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJohn Kelly’s exit raises concerns about White House future Election hacking will come to a ‘breaking point,’ says Dem strategist Webb: GOP must play prevent defense MORE (R-Wis.), came from contributions of $200 or less.

Bryce's Republican challenger, Bryan Steil, raised about 17.5 percent of his individual contributions from small donors, FEC filings show.

Presidential candidates, including former President Obama and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCongress digs in for prolonged Saudi battle Santorum: Dems have a chance in 2020 if they pick someone ‘unexpected’ Dems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator' MORE (I-Vt.), have harnessed the power of small donors in the past.

Trump’s campaign in 2016 also unleashed a deluge of low-dollar contributions, and that trend appears to be continuing for the president this year.

From July 1 through Sept. 30, Trump's reelection campaign raised more than $18 million, according to recent federal filings. Of that, roughly $2.9 million came from donors giving $200 or less.

Michael Caputo, a former adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, said that slew of small donations is fueled by the president’s populist brand of politics.

But also driving the contributions is a sense among the president’s supporters that his administration's achievements and agenda are imperiled by Democrats, Caputo said.

Trump has frequently used harsh language to attack Democrats, spreading his message to the millions who follow him on Twitter and the thousands who show up at his campaign rallies.

“One of the strongest drivers of the small-dollar donations to president is the chaos that’s on display in this country,” Caputo told The Hill in an interview. “People are alarmed with the mob mentality that seems to have engulfed Washington.”

Caputo said Trump, with his campaign’s aggressive digital operation, has now set an example for the Republican Party moving forward.

“The party is learning from the president’s fundraising,” he said. “A lot of the president’s fundraising is coming from email appeals and as every day goes by, Republican candidates are emulating his appeals more and more.”