Why Bernie Sanders’ $6 million haul is so important

Posted at 11:14 AM, Feb 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-21 16:17:18-05

The new big thing in 2020 is touting your campaign’s fundraising in the first 24 hours.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who announced he’s running for president earlier this week, set the bar pretty darn high — collecting almost $6 million in his first day as a candidate. California Sen. Kamala Harris brought in $1.5 million. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar raked in $1 million over her first two days as a candidate. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren collected $300,000 in her first day as a candidate.

How do I know all of these totals? Because the candidates’ campaigns touted them relentlessly, pointing to their fundraising as an indication of the excitement and support within the party for their bids. Which got me interested in how much of the touting of early fundraising numbers is spin and how much of it really matters. To answer that question, I reached out to Jackson Dunn, a former finance chairman at the Democratic National Committee for answers.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Touting how much a candidate raised in the first 24 hours of being a candidate is the new hot thing to do. What, specifically, does it tell us — if anything?

Dunn: Given that most of the donations in the first 24 hours are small-dollar online contributions, it tell us two things.

First, the candidate has a message that is hitting home, and secondly, he/she has built the infrastructure to deliver it. Online donations are a better indicator of a candidate’s strength and organization than any instant polling numbers or party insider’s opinion. I suspect that’s partially why the DNC looks at the volume and scope of small-dollar donations in addition to polling to select candidates for the upcoming debates.

Cillizza: How important is the average contribution and/or the # of people who gave in the first 24 hours? More or less important than the total amount raised?

Dunn: Far more important is the number of contributors than the amount of the contributions. Small-dollar donors are more likely to give again and again, and once you’ve put your dollars behind a candidate, the more loyal you are likely to remain during the ups and downs of the primary process. And because the campaign now has their email address of these new contributors, the campaign can engage them in other online and off-line campaign activities.

Cillizza: Does a big fundraising number at the start of a campaign predict future fundraising success?

Dunn: Not always, but it doesn’t hurt. It shows campaign organization and strength of message. A big fundraising number shows that you have reached a critical audience, and that they hear you and they are with you. After a strong start, maintaining that momentum can be challenge: the campaign has to keep building trust and relationships with its donors; making sure these supporters have the opportunity to fully engage with the campaign beyond providing donations. There are plenty of examples of campaigns that started strong but could not effectively engage with its backers to sustain that intensity throughout the primary campaign.

Cillizza: What’s more important in the modern presidential campaign: Major donors who bundle or small dollar donors?

Dunn: Fun fact: Money is needed to run campaigns. Whether it comes in through bundling or online, I have always found it spends about the same. Bundlers tend to be political, business, and civic leaders whose support is critical.

But today, small-dollar donors are the most vital. Small-dollar donors bring not only dollars but demonstrate broad political support and energy. If correctly engaged, they can infuse the campaign with new funds at critical moments. It used to be that small-dollar donors would look to the early high-dollar fundraising momentum to vet a candidate’s viability. Now it’s kind of the opposite. The major donor bundlers are watching how candidates do with the small dollar donors, and assessing viability. Big change in the last 20 years.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If you can’t raise $1 million in your first 24 hours as a candidate, it means __________.” Now, explain.

Dunn: “You need to reexamine your life choices.”

In fairness, it completely depends on where you are in the field. Low name identification and less than a million, OK. High name identification and less than million? You need to think hard about your candidacy. It’s fixable, but means you have a problem with your organization and message that needs to be adjusted immediately.