Bernie Sanders, the liberal senator who made campaign finance reform a central pillar of his rebellious 2016 presidential campaign, entered the 2020 race in February with a bang, raising $5.9 million in the first 24 hours
Washington (AFP) - The 2020 presidential election is still 20 months away, but one campaign battle is already raging: the fight for America's small-dollar contributions.
With all 12 major Democratic White House candidates shunning donations from corporations and political action committees, or PACs, they have turned their collective eye toward individual voters, who are showing increasing willingness to open their pocketbooks and play a larger role in the political process.
All signs point to an avalanche of personal contributions in the 2020 election cycle as individuals invest more of their own cash in candidates, as polls show voters are overwhelmingly fed up with dark money and corporate influence in politics.
Candidates are required to report their first-quarter donations to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) within the coming weeks, and the results are likely to show that while big money will still be at play in the election process, it just might be coming more from everyday voters.
- 'Eager to give' -
"There was a lot of energy on the Democratic side (in the 2018 midterm elections) and I see no reason why Democratic giving would slow down in a cycle when President Trump is actually on the ballot," Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for campaign finance reform group End Citizens United, told AFP.
Individual Democratic donors are "eager to give," he added, "provided that these candidates are walking the walk on reforming our broken campaign finance system."
Many of them seek to claim the moral high ground and prove they will be accountable to the American people and not to corporate donors or special interests.
"The money in politics is corrupting. It controls everything," Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told voters in Des Moines, Iowa, last month after announcing her presidential bid.
"You have to get money out of politics. And that's why, as a very small first step, I'm not taking corporate PAC money."
Instead she and others, armed with massive voter databases culled from social media and other contacts thanks to improving technology, are sending out millions of fundraising emails seeking contributions to fund their exhausting ground operations -- "even just a dollar," pleaded one such message from Democrat Cory Booker.
Bernie Sanders, the liberal senator who made campaign finance reform a central pillar of his rebellious 2016 presidential campaign, entered the 2020 race in February with a bang, raising $5.9 million in the first 24 hours from more than 220,000 individuals across all 50 states. The average donation was $27.
"Powerful special interests may have the money," he tweeted, "but we have the people."
Donald Trump of course is not sitting idle. The president filed his candidacy for 2020 the day after his inauguration, and his campaign has been fundraising ever since, reportedly raising some $106 million by last October.
- Unlimited political spending -
Many Democrats have raised the reform alarm since 2010, when the controversial Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs FEC lifted restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and unions.
It also paved the way for unlimited political spending by independent groups known as super PACs, political entities that can accept unlimited contributions -- sometimes millions of dollars by a single entity or individual -- and then spend that money advocating for a candidate.
Burgwinkle, of End Citizens United, said some Democrats have benefited from super PACS, but that the lion's share of post-Citizens United PAC money went towards helping elect Republicans.
But today, Trump's challengers are receiving major financial boosts from energized grassroots supporters.
"The race for money in the Democratic Party is really going to be a race for small dollars," said Colby College's Anthony Corrado, a government professor and leading expert on political finance.
"What Bernie Sanders proved in 2016 was that you can finance a campaign largely depending on small-dollar contributions -- if you can generate the excitement amongst the grass roots faithful."
But just because candidates swear off corporate or PAC money and focus on grassroots voters, nothing is preventing a mega-donor like billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer from contributing millions of dollars to PACs and outside money groups that will independently help candidates.
Meanwhile the online donation process is becoming increasingly efficient for small-dollar donors.
When Beto O'Rourke announced his presidential campaign Thursday, he went up with a website that led supporters to a user-friendly donation page powered by ActBlue, a non-profit group whose platform has become a small-dollar juggernaut.
ActBlue says millions of Americans contributed a staggering $1.6 billion through the platform, at an average $39 per donation, during the 2018 election cycle.
"They're not looking for political access, they're supporting a cause or a political platform," Corrado said of the donors.
"And if you've got 100,000 people giving you $10 a month, you've suddenly got real money."