Campaign Reforms May Never Pass, But the Low-Dollar Revolution Has Already Begun

Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. 

A sweeping anti-corruption bill marching toward approval in the House is not expected to make it past the Senate, but Democrats may not need legislation to get at least part of their wish: a small donor revolution that dilutes the power of big money.

A centerpiece of the “For the People Act,” officially HR 1, which recently sailed through the House Administration Committee and may come to the floor for a vote within a matter of weeks, is a plan to match low-dollar campaign contributions with public funding. The public matching funds would tilt policy influence away from moneyed interests and toward average Americans, say the bill’s advocates

Republicans have derided the bill, which also includes voter protections and tighter lobbying and ethics regulations, as a power grab by Democrats who want to rig the rules in their favor. But Republicans are quietly scrambling to catch up with Democrats in low-dollar fundraising, which was pivotal to the 40-seat pickup that put Democrats back in control in the House, and is increasingly becoming the holy grail of modern campaign financing.

The small-donor craze is playing out both on Capitol Hill, and on the presidential campaign trail, where raising large sums via low-dollar contributions—anywhere from $3 to $200 apiece—has become a leading measure of viability in the sprawling Democratic field. In the House, more than three dozen freshman Democrats who swore off corporate PAC contributions on the campaign trail are also test-driving a new “subscription” model of fundraising built around small, recurring, monthly donations.

New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has likened the monthly, low-dollar gifts that make up the bulk of her campaign receipts to “Netflix, but for unbought members of Congress.” Ocasio-Cortez raised more from small donors in the midterm than any other incoming freshman—close to 62 percent of her $2 million war chest. She has touted the “Netflix” model as a means to free her from the ‘round-the-clock fundraising that has become the scourge of life on Capitol Hill, and that helped drive a near-record 52 House members to retire instead of seeking re-election in 2018.

In the White House contest, a dozen Democratic contenders have rejected corporate PAC money, and are vying to outdo one another in no-big-money pledges, from swearing off fossil fuels donations to rebuffing outside super PACs. Massachusetts Senate Democrat Elizabeth Warren raised the bar this week with her pledge to swear off high-dollar fundraisers, and to block big donors from special access to her campaign.

It’s easy to dismiss Warren’s move as a bid to deflect attention from the whopping $5.9 million that Bernie Sanders raised within 24 hours of announcing his White House bid. Sanders tapped 223,000 donors who gave an average of just $27 apiece. Warren herself collected less than $300,000 within a day of entering the race. Senate Democrat Kamala Harris, of California, had raised $1.5 million from 38,000 donors within 24 hours of announcing her candidacy. Warren also emailed supporters that her no-fundraiser pledge “will ensure I’m outraised in this race,” a perceived effort to lower expectations for her first-quarter fundraising totals.

Democrats’ quest for the high road also invite accusations of hypocrisy, given that big money has a way of finding its way into campaigns. Warren’s no-fundraiser pledge appears to extend only to the primary—not the general election. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has said he doesn’t want a big-money super PAC to support his candidacy, but wealthy Democratic operative Steve Phillips is starting a pro-Booker super PAC anyway. No-corporate PAC pledges are largely symbolic, given that candidates tend to collect relatively little from corporate PACs in any case.

Still, there’s no denying the culture shift under way in campaign fundraising, as Democrats respond to mounting public disgust with big money in politics. At least for the moment, big Democratic donors have less cachet among White House contenders than armies of small-dollar contributors. And Democrats’ success in leveraging small dollars to collect large sums—fueled in part by the explosive growth of the online fundraising platform known as ActBlue—is forcing Republicans on Capitol Hill to respond in kind.

ActBlue raised $1.6 billion for campaigns and causes through its platform in the 2018 midterms, prompting Republican fears of a “green wave” that enabled more than 100 Democratic candidates to outraise their GOP opponents, thanks in part to contributions that averaged just $39.67. Now Republicans have set out to create their own low-dollar fundraising platform to compete with ActBlue, dubbed Patriot Pass—even as they decry public matching funds to boost small contributions as “welfare for politicians.”

No one expects wealthy donors to fade into the woodwork, of course. And many Democrats continue to argue that their party should not disarm unilaterally—particularly given the unprecedented $100 million that President Donald Trump has raised—much of it in low-dollar contributions—for his 2020 reelection campaign. But the growing number of average Americans joining the donor pool raises the intriguing possibility that culture shifts could change the face of fundraising—even if HR 1 never becomes law.

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