The Fundraising Guru Behind Bernie Sanders' 27 Dollars

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks to guests gathered for a campaign rally at Roosevelt University on March 14, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Illinois voters go to the polls tomorrow for the state's primary.

SourceScott Olson/Getty

Why you should care

Because some progressive fundraisers say the best way to keep money out of politics is to send them yours.

“Hi, I’m Ben,” reads the first message. “And I’m Jerry.” So begins a tongue-in-cheek, text-message-style email between Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, cofounders of Ben & Jerry’s, from last July, urging readers to sign a petition to overturn Citizens United. It’s not often you hear two millionaires inveighing against hefty campaign donations, and it’s even rarer to find it within an email sent by the campaign of a sitting U.S. senator.

The pitch was just one early sign that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 outfit was a different kind of campaign — in both message and style — and one that’s increasingly rewriting the playbook on digital campaign fundraising. In the 48 hours after Sanders’ victory in the New Hampshire primary, the senator’s campaign raised an astonishing $8 million online, mostly from small donations. Some observers believe the campaign will outpace Hillary Clinton’s effort over the next few months. One of the key figures behind Sanders’ fundraising juggernaut is his digital fundraising director, Tim Tagaris, a former Marine.

Sanders’ decision to forgo a super PAC — something many consultants and pundits dub political suicide — is driving grassroots support and small-dollar donations in a way we’ve never seen.

Edward Erikson, communications strategist

Since last summer, Tagaris, 39, and his fellow digital gurus at Revolution Messaging, a D.C.-based progressive digital agency, have run Sanders’ online fundraising, social media and digital advertising. They’ve been tasked with the rather unenviable job of asking people to give money to a politician in order to combat money in politics.

And yet, according to the Federal Election Commission, through the end of 2015 the campaign had raised around $54 million in donations of $200 or less from more than a million Americans — a small-donor outpouring that far outpaces previous candidates, including Obama in 2008. Indeed, Sanders’ “decision to forgo a super PAC, something many consultants and pundits dub political suicide,” says Edward Erikson, a communications strategist whose clients include Cohen, “is driving grassroots support and small-dollar donations in a way we’ve never seen.”

Such an operation, of course, starts with the candidate himself, and his message. “The real innovation here is the authenticity, and the willingness to speak at length about the issues that people are facing every day,” Tagaris told Yahoo News last July. But it ultimately means merging the candidate, the message and the fundraising into a seamless whole — in this case, via the tagline “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires).”

Tagaris, a Chicago native and die-hard Cubs fan, started as a blogger and consultant. His first major campaign was the 2005 congressional campaign of Ohio Democrat Paul Hackett — another straight-talking candidate like Sanders who decried money in politics. Building on Howard Dean’s innovative 2004 presidential campaign, Tagaris, as Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox chronicle in their book Netroots Rising (2008), effectively deployed the Internet to trumpet Hackett’s military record and outspoken criticisms of “chicken hawk” President George W. Bush to help convert energy into volunteers and substantial donations to Hackett, who lost narrowly. The senior staffers running the campaign, who referred to Tagaris as “the blogger,” remained somewhat skeptical about his methods — until the deluge of cash they brought in proved too overwhelming.

Tagaris — who, with closely shaved black hair, looks every bit the former Marine and political warrior — would go on to work for the Connecticut Senate campaign of Ned Lamont in 2006 and Senator Chris Dodd’s short-lived 2008 presidential campaign, as well as for the Democratic National Committee, among others, before joining Revolution Messaging as a partner in 2013.

The Internet has grown up through Tagaris’ career: As mobile technology has improved, more people became comfortable donating money online. But it’s also become more challenging for a campaign to penetrate the thicket of our daily digital communications. As the Ben & Jerry’s email demonstrates, Tagaris’ expertise is tapping into the psychology of small donors with a message that resonates, earns loyalty and builds responsiveness. “This campaign cycle is less about new technology and more about how we use technology,” says Erikson.

Tagaris has an all-star team at his side, including digital fundraising manager Michael Whitney from Revolution, one of the gurus behind Dean’s campaign, and Kenneth Pennington, the 24-year-old wunderkind who serves as digital director for the Sanders campaign. That team, however, still has its work cut out for it if the campaign wants to out-raise Clinton with Sanders’ now famous $27 average donation. “Sanders’ small-donor strategy and shunning of super PACs has worked so far,” says Richard Hasen, an expert in election law at the University of California, Irvine. “[But] it will be harder to sustain this strategy going forward against Clinton, and if he made it to the general election.” Among other things, because of the extra support given to her by super PACs, Clinton has more financial flexibility and can afford to spend a higher proportion of her hard-earned cash.

It’s hard to imagine super PACs and big donors getting displaced anytime soon. But if Tagaris and Co. can help put Sanders over the top and into the White House, it will go a long way in showing that the big-donor model is broken — even before Bernie, Ben and Jerry get a shot at overturning Citizens United.

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