We’ll Be Hearing a Lot About Grassroots Fundraising From Democrats in 2020

At this point, Julian Castro is the only Democrat who has made a formal announcement about his 2020 presidential campaign, while Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillebrand have made their intentions clear with the formation of exploratory committees. During his announcement speech, Castro pledged that he will not accept a dime of PAC money for his campaign. Here is what Julie Bykowicz reported about the other two candidates:

Two announced candidates, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have publicly sworn off super PACs, which can collect millions of dollars from a single donor.

As we’ve already seen with the attacks launched against Beto O’Rourke, we’re going to be hearing a lot about this kind of thing in the coming months. So let’s start a discussion about the 2020 Democratic candidates with some clarity about the current rules regarding campaign donations.

  1. Corporate entities are not allowed to donate directly to a campaign
  2. Individuals can donate up to $2,700 to a campaign
  3. PACs can donate up to $5,000 to a campaign
  4. Super PACs don’t donate to a campaign, but make “independent expenditures” advocating for the election or defeat of candidates

With all that in mind, it is clear that we are in the midst of a transformation on how Democratic campaigns raise money. It all started when Howard Dean demonstrated the impact of small donations, which was eventually built upon by Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign proved that the same focus on small donors could be successful in a senate race.

Tom Perez is taking those lessons and making similar changes at the Democratic National Committee. As we saw during the 2018 midterm elections, the party abandoned the idea of picking winners and losers with large direct donations to campaigns and instead focused resources on helping candidates raise money at the grassroots level. For the presidential primary, Perez is in the process of developing a new rule for participation in the debates.

Chair Tom Perez is setting a kind of cover charge to get onstage for the Democratic presidential primary debates, but not just any money will do. In addition to the usual polling metrics required to join the debate, candidates will also have to meet a to-be-determined criteria for “grassroots fundraising.”

Including small-dollar fundraising as a necessary element for debate participation would have two effects. First, it incentivizes candidates to invest — strategically, financially, and emotionally — in growing a small-donor base. Second, it will force potential billionaire self-funders like Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Howard Schultz to demonstrate some level of popular enthusiasm for their campaigns, meaning they can’t just flash their own cash and buy their way onstage.

Just as all of that is happening, social media is changing the way campaign funds are spent, something I’ve been predicting would happen for a while now.

Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, said the past few years have flipped campaign fundraising on its head. “It used to be that money drove your ability to put out your message,” he said. “Now, it’s what you’re saying on cable and on social media that drives contributions. The old model of using big resources to make your case to voters—that’s not really how it works anymore.”

The old model might not be dead just yet, but it is surely on its last leg. Candidates have a variety of new tools to connect with voters that are very low cost and have the potential to reach even larger audiences than expensive television ads. The more personal nature of those connections can help fuel small contributions from a larger pool of donors with a click on a computer screen.

As more candidates weigh into the presidential race, it will be important to accurately assess their ability to utilize this new model that combines an effective use of social media with grassroots fundraising. Those who have been paying attention will know that the game has changed. As such, they’ll adapt and hopefully take us further down the road to eliminating the role of big money in presidential campaigns. I’d even go so far as to predict that the best adapter will be the one most likely to become the Democratic nominee.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.