‘Fundraging’: Trump presidency leads to flood of Democratic donations

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Laura Weisel, a retired Harvard University administrator, was so horrified by the outcome that she decided to fight back. Eventually, she and seven other Democratic volunteers in the Boston area picked their weapon of choice: their wallets.

Ms Weisel and her compatriots at Force Multiplier, a grassroots fundraising group, reasoned there must be others like them: relatively well-off people living in Democratic states who “had some disposable income” and were willing to donate to political campaigns.

“We were not the big donors who got invited to the big dinners . . . we were sort of an unrecognised segment of the population who wanted to do something,” said Ms Weisel. “But no one was asking us for money.”

In the 2020 election cycle, Force Multiplier has raised more than $5.3m. It has not spent any of that in Massachusetts, the safely Democratic state where it is based, but rather in a handful of “down ballot” House and Senate races in election battlegrounds that are often hundreds of miles away.

The group is one of dozens that have sprung up in the wake of Mr Trump’s election, powering record donations to Democratic campaigns in a trend some have characterised as “fundraging”.

In the 2020 election cycle, more than 13.6m Americans have donated to Democratic candidates and causes through ActBlue, the main platform for online Democratic giving. By the end of September, they had given more than $3.8bn. That is nearly triple the amount raised on the platform during the 2018 election cycle and almost six times the total in 2016.

Mr Trump’s campaign and Republicans, who have struggled to match the swell of donations, insist donors cannot buy an election. If fundraising were the main yardstick of political success, then Hillary Clinton, who outraised Mr Trump in 2016, would be president today.

But regardless of who wins this week’s election, the surge of grassroots donations from Democratic supporters has the potential to fundamentally change political fundraising in future election cycles.

Democrats are increasingly making campaign contributions — whether they be in increments of a few dollars or hundreds and thousands — to influence not just the presidential election, but also down-ballot races.

One of the biggest shifts has been the flow of money from populous states with higher per capita incomes to races elsewhere in the country. Whereas a donor from New York or California might once have given money only to a local candidate who was a shoo-in for re-election, they are now trying to get more bang for their buck by sending cash farther afield.

For instance, Jaime Harrison, a Democratic challenger who is running against Lindsey Graham in a South Carolina race for the US Senate, has raised $109m for his bid to unseat the long-serving Republican. The vast majority of that has come from donors who do not live in the state: of the $11.8m Mr Harrison had raised from individuals at the end of June, $10m came from out of state.

Key senate races benefit from out-of-state donors

According to a Financial Times analysis of Federal Election Commission records, 44 per cent of all federal-level donations this year has gone to Joe Biden. But down-ballot races have also seen a surge in giving, primarily from out-of-state donors.

So far in 2020, US Senate campaigns have pulled in triple the amount they raised in 2016. In five of the 10 most expensive Senate races, the biggest pool of contributions came from out of state.

Michael Malbin, founder of the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute and a political-science professor at the University at Albany, said: “Some of these [down-ballot] campaigns are spending what presidential campaigns used to spend.”

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In San Francisco, Jeff Sun, a 34-year-old start-up employee, said he had dramatically increased his political giving this year to a few thousand dollars, which he has divvied up between the Biden campaign and key competitive Senate races.

He tends to give in increments of $100 and often opens his wallet after a major news event, such as the first presidential debate or Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. “I’ll just go through the list [of campaigns] . . . and just give.”

The flow of money from donors who might not have even visited the state they are sending money to, let alone lived in it, has caused consternation among some Republicans. In South Carolina, Mr Graham has claimed that Democratic donors are “killing” him and suggested Congress should consider imposing restrictions on small-dollar donations.

“Where’s all this money coming from? . . . When this election is over with, I hope there will be a sitting down and finding out, ‘OK, how do we control this?’” Mr Graham recently said.

Individuals step up senatorial donations on a massive scale

For some of these Democratic donors, selecting which out-of-town race to contribute to has become a form of amateur stock picking. They often pore over opinion polls and other political data to decide where they can get the best return on their investment.

Others rely on outside groups to help them pick. Blueprint, a division of the progressive political group Swing Left, allows Democrats to invest their political dollars in much the same way that they would manage a portfolio of securities, allocating quarterly donations to a curated selection of campaigns and voter groups.

Catherine Vaughan, one of Blueprint’s creators, said the group, which has raised $4.5m so far, sought to take a “moneyball approach to political giving”, referring to the practice of trying to build a successful baseball team by relying on advanced statistics.

Column chart showing individuals donate to Arizona senate candidate Mark Kelly

In Portland, Oregon, Laura Adams, a 36-year-old former Nike director, said her approach to political donations had become more sophisticated since the 2016 election.

“Until [2018] I kind of thought political fundraising is just a bunch of really rich people writing a lot of big cheques,” she said. That changed when she donated almost $7,000 during the 2018 midterm elections, most of it to a handful of Democratic House candidates.

In the 2020 cycle, she became even more strategic, setting herself a $10,000 budget to spend on campaigns and progressive groups. She decided to spend 75 per cent of that at least six months before the election because many campaigns struggle to raise money early on.

Democratic donors and fundraisers acknowledge that enthusiasm for defeating Mr Trump and the Republican lawmakers who back him has been a big driver in the surge of donations.

They also say that Covid-19 has played a role. With many campaigns forgoing get-out-the-vote operations, Democratic activists are more likely to donate money instead of time.

The big question facing the Democrats is whether their fundraising power will persist if Mr Trump loses the White House, or in election years when the pandemic does not loom large.

Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP strategist, said: “Whether [this] lasts into the future is anyone’s guess. But clearly the Democrats have developed the infrastructure to raise stunning amounts of money, not just for the presidential, but for down-ballot races.”

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