Hours after Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman card” in the race for president, her supporters received an email asking them to donate, even just $1.
“This campaign is going to need deep resources for the wild ride that likely awaits us,” a Clinton staffer wrote.
That led 21-year-old Anna Lawson to push the red “donate” button on the email and contribute to a political campaign for the first time in her life. She charged $5 to her credit card.
Online support doesn’t mark the end of star-studded fundraisers where wealthy donors give the maximum amount allowed. But digital fundraising has quickly become the preferred and efficient method.
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In 2004, Howard Dean was widely credited with being the first presidential candidate to connect the Internet to fundraising. In 2008, Barack Obama set records with his army of online donors. In 2016, Bernie Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to raise nearly all of his money online.
This year, both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton and Sanders, are aggressively courting donors through online ads, Facebook, Twitter and, of course, email, which is by far the most successful form of online persuasion, where every detail matters, from who signs it to the message conveyed. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, might do the same as he begins to raise money.
For supporters, donating online is simple and makes them feel connected to their candidates. For campaigns, it broadens their audiences, enhances their data about their donors and gives them recurring, steady streams of cash.
“It sends the message that the campaign is for everyone, that you have a stake in something,” said Gillea Allison, who held a senior role on the 2012 Obama campaign’s digital team and now is the director of community for Blue State Digital, a digital strategy agency. “Not only are you getting more people, ultimately they are part of that campaign.”
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In the days after Sanders’ landslide win in New Hampshire, his campaign raised $8 million. The independent Vermont senator urged supporters at his victory party to donate at his website, according to Sanders aides.
After Trump’s “woman card” comments, 118,000 donors contributed $2.4 million to the former secretary of state’s campaign, according to Clinton aides.
“I was a little offended by what he said,” said Lawson, the first-time Winchester, Virginia, donor, who works in a grocery store. “You don’t say that stuff to people.”
Campaign finance watchdog groups say they prefer online fundraising because it makes it easier for all Americans, not just the wealthy, to be involved in politics.
Anytime you can make it easier for people to donate is good.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization
“This doesn’t mean we have solved the problem,” said Stephen Spaulding, policy counsel at Common Cause, a nonpartisan group. “Many citizens still feel they don’t have a voice.”
More than 94 percent of the money Sanders has collected has come in online, according to the campaign. About 60 percent of his contributions have come from email solicitations, his campaign says.
Sanders had received more than 7.4 million contributions from more than 2.4 million donors, totaling $210 million, through the end of April, according to the campaign. More than 98.5 percent of his individual donations have been made online.
“Americans are rejecting the old way of doing business – and now that Bernie Sanders has shown fundraising can be done a better way, I think more and more campaigns will adopt his model,” said Scott Goodstein, CEO of Revolution Messaging, the firm responsible for Sanders’ online fundraising.
Both campaigns claim to have received as little as 3 percent of their donations from people who have given the maximum $2,700.
The advantage of small donors is you can go back to them again and again and again.
Candice Nelson, American University government professor who studies campaign finance
Sanders’ success with small donations from lower- and middle-class supporters fits with his message championing the underpaid, overworked American, experts say.
“It feeds into the narrative he is projecting,” said Adam Levine, a government professor at Cornell University who studies political participation. “People think the Sanders campaign is listening to them and sharing their concern.”
Clinton had raised $213.5 million from 1.2 million donors through the end of April, though her campaign declined to say how much came in online. In February and March, more than half of her money came in online, up from 31 percent in December and 37 percent in January, according to the campaign.
Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who have big-money ties after 40 years in public life, still raise millions through traditional fundraisers. She has attended dozens of such events, from New York to California, hosted by politicians, business executives and movie stars. Each contributor can donate $2,700 for the primary, but hosts are asked to become volunteer fundraisers or bundlers, collecting tens of thousands of dollars from friends.
Sanders had a handful of fundraisers last year that his campaign describes as rallies attended by hundreds or thousands who had paid $25. As he began raising millions of dollars online, Sanders stopped the fundraisers.
“At that point he may have decided the $25 was just a barrier to entry, so we stopped doing fundraisers at all,” said Kenneth Pennington, the campaign’s digital director.
For the first three months of this year, Sanders outraised Clinton, a stunning feat for a self-described democratic socialist who was initially dismissed as a fringe candidate. In April, after it appeared that Clinton would secure the nomination, she raised more than Sanders.
“This campaign is powered by contributions from more than 1.2 million people, most of whom have given small donations online,” Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin said. “That grass-roots support represents the millions of Americans who know Hillary Clinton is the best candidate to break down barriers facing Americans and win in November.”
Totals from online fundraising
January, 37 percent
February, more than 50 percent
March, more than 50 percent
January, 97 percent
February, 96 percent
March, 93 percent