Why you should care
It doesn’t take deep pockets to affect an election.
As a new member of America’s Social Security set, Ellen Kozlove is counting her coins a little more carefully these days in the sunny climes of Boca Raton, Florida. But there’s one place she says she’d be willing to spend again and again: aiding Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “You don’t feel like you’re getting cheated,” notes Kozlove, who says she’d give her cash in small spurts as long as her favorite candidate stays the course. Unfortunately for Clinton, folks like Kozlove are so far an exception.
It turns out, both Clinton and erstwhile Republican favorite Jeb Bush are relying heavily on max donations instead of small contributors, a strategy that could mean cash-flow problems as the long primary season unwinds. The dynastic duo, in fact, have tapped max donors more than any other 2016 candidates. Small-donation dollars made up just 5 percent of the former Florida governor’s fundraising total as of the third quarter ending September 30, FEC filings show, while the ex–secretary of state saw just 17 percent of her cash coming from donations of less than $200. Deep-pocketed donors who contributed the $2,700 maximum accounted for more than half of Clinton’s funds, and more than three-fifths of Bush’s.
Building up a small-donor base has become even more important in recent elections, as super-wealthy donors flock to fund super PACs.
The problem: Election law says those big donors can’t be tapped again until the general election. That’s why some campaigns prefer to rack up small donors — think a hundred giving $27 rather than one giving $2,700. “That’s a renewable resource. Campaigns can keep going back [for more],” says Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist. “It’s not that they aren’t seeking small donations,” says Shaw, who served as an analyst on the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush campaigns. “But that’s not a centerpiece for their campaigns.” It’s a gamble. The “go-big” philosophy sounds good — until the “or go home” part rears its head. “Any time there is a competitive primary, there is the risk that someone will run out of money,” says political scientist Keena Lipsitz, author of Competitive Elections and the American Voter.
Building up a small-donor base has become even more important in recent elections, as super-wealthy donors flock to fund super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts while leaving candidates’ own campaigns with less hard cash to cover the costs of advertising, travel and campaign swag. Cases in point: the failed quests of ex–Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans who built large networks but have dropped out because of financial woes. Their ill-fated campaigns spent almost 85 percent of what they took in — a burn rate that Clinton and Bush mimicked in the third quarter — and couldn’t keep afloat once the well ran dry. Both left supportive super PACs with millions still in the bank in their wake.
Bush may have had his spending rate in mind when he announced major cuts to payroll, travel and general expenses beginning this month, despite the fact that his Right to Rise super PAC has raised a hefty $103 million. In future elections, political watchers wonder whether super PACs will continue to simply complement campaigns, doubling down with extra on-the-ground supporters and grassroots outreach efforts, or instead try to divide the labor, taking over the bulk of television advertising, for example. Technically, the PACs can’t coordinate with campaigns, but often manage to streamline efforts anyway.
As her party’s presumptive favorite, the risk of the big-donor approach is less of an issue for Clinton, says George Washington University political scientist John Sides. Her campaign says it’s not worried either. A Hillary for America spokesman points to Clinton’s $5.2 million raised from small donors in the third quarter, an amount that trailed only Bernie Sanders ($20 million) and Ben Carson ($12 million). Meanwhile, Bush (whose campaign did not respond to our overtures) has seen his poll numbers drop to single digits, and could struggle with his go-to donors sidelined for the rest of the primary season. Says Sides: Bush must “maintain enough viability” to convince donors of all sizes to contribute during the long pre-primary winter. Playing the long game is more important in a larger field, says Queens College’s Lipsitz.
Clinton will have a chance to make her appeal to small-timers in Friday’s MSNBC Democratic debate. While Bush told viewers of the last GOP debate that impatience is his biggest weakness, he may have no choice but to wait — and that’s where a renewable donor base could become crucial. “The early states are not good for Bush,” says the University of Texas’s Shaw, but the flagging Florida governor will have to make a move before it’s too late. “You can’t just pick up 200 miles into the Indy 500.”