Hillary Clinton has improved her fundraising performance with small-dollar contributors by drawing attention to how her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has raised more money from that class of donors.
Clinton’s fundraising emails increasingly attempt to galvanize her supporters by mentioning reality television star Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee. But a more sustained trend is her fundraising team’s use of Sanders’ success with small donors, or those who give less than $200, to encourage potential Clinton contributors to chip in.
While Clinton posted a much-improved small-donor number in February, Sanders’ near-total reliance on small donors is unprecedented. The senator had raised nearly $140 million by the end of last month, with two-thirds of that haul coming from small donors. Clinton, in contrast, raised just $19 million from small donors last year.
“Bernie raised $4 million in 48 hours,” noted a fundraising email sent Monday signed by Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. Another email from Mook had a similar subject line, after Sanders won the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary: “Bernie raised $6 million yesterday.”
Ahead of the last debate between the two candidates earlier this month Dennis Cheng, Clinton's national finance director, warned her supporters in an email that Sanders would likely announce that he has received five million contributions to his campaign onstage, (which he did mention).
Her campaign announced that it had reached the milestone of 1 million individual donors on March 18: the Sanders campaign, however, has nearly doubled that number. Clinton’s touting of her increased haul from small donors has led to rebukes from fact-checkers. Politifact, for instance, debunked her claim from earlier this month that her campaign “depends on small donors for the majority of our support.”
Clinton’s team has both highlighted and denied the disparity in small-dollar fundraising between her campaign and Sanders’. Multiple emails suggest that her donors “haven’t gotten as much credit as [they] deserve,” and that “the Sanders campaign continues to … act like you don’t exist.”
But other emails implicitly chastise her supporters for not contributing the way Sanders’ have. One email from February signed by Mook said “more of [Sanders’] team has stepped up to own a piece of their success -- and I need everyone here to do the same.”
Clinton’s campaign has claimed to its supporters that reaching milestones with small-dollar donors is only symbolically important -- “This isn’t about the money” -- while also writing “The resources we bring in before [the next fundraising deadline] will determine how strong we will be going into” upcoming primaries. (The latter message would seem to contradict the former.)
The rhetoric behind these emails has a dual purpose of convincing supporters and non-supporters alike that Clinton still needs small-dollar support to wrap up the primary, even as a super PAC backing Clinton, Priorities USA, is “waiting in the wings,” as Sanders’ campaign has put it, to unleash the millions it has raised.
Sanders’ emails tell his supporters they are part of a movement, highlighting attendance numbers from rallies and fundraising records they have shattered. He frequently brings up the millions Clinton earned in speaking fees from financial services firms after she left the State Department, and her support from the fossil fuel industry.
While Clinton’s fundraising emails argue she’s the underdog in the primary when it comes to small donors, Sanders has tried to de-emphasize his dominance. An email from last week signed by his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, noted that Clinton and Priorities USA took in almost $35 million in February -- without mentioning that his campaign out-raised hers that month.