Trump shatters GOP records with small donors
Donald Trump has unleashed an unprecedented deluge of small-dollar donations for the GOP, and one that Republican Party elders have dreamed about finding for much of the last decade as they’ve watched a succession of Democrats — Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton — develop formidable fundraising operations, $5, $10 and $20 at a time.
Trump has only been actively soliciting cash for a few months, but when he reveals his campaign’s financials later this week they will show he has crushed the total haul from small-dollar donors of the last two Republican nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney — during the entirety of their campaigns.
All told, Trump is approaching, and has possibly already passed, $100 million from donors who have given less than $200, according to an analysis of available Federal Election Commission filings, the campaign’s public statements and people familiar with his fundraising operation. It is a threshold no previous Republican has ever achieved in a single campaign. And Trump has done so less than three months after signing his first email solicitation for donors on June 21 — a staggering speed to collect such a vast sum.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a senior Republican operative who has worked closely with the campaign’s small-dollar fundraising operation. “He’s the Republican Obama in terms of online fundraising.”
Clinton counted 2.3 million donors as of the end of August, the result of decades of campaigning, a previous presidential bid and allies who painstakingly built her an email file of supporters even before she formally announced her second run. But Trump had zoomed to 2.1 million donors in the last three months alone, his campaign has said.
The question now is what the gusher means for the GOP. The Republican National Committee, through a deal struck with Trump in May, is getting 20 percent of the proceeds from its small-donor operation for Trump plus access to this invaluable new donor and email file. But can Trump’s candidacy help close the Republican Party’s small-donor divide in one fell swoop? Will these donors — 2.1 million and counting — give to other Republicans? Will they drag the Republican Party in Trump’s direction for years to come? Or, if he loses, will they simply vanish?
“The challenge is that we still have a divided party,” said Mindy Finn, who led Romney’s digital team in 2008 and worked for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004.
Trump has found record-setting success as the first Republican nominee “in the Internet age” to have made empowering the grassroots and railing against the elite a core of his campaign message, Finn said. Going forward, the key is if his donors can be convinced to give to a candidate with just a bit less bombast. “Can you be a populist without being a barnburner?” she asked. “And thus still be able to raise this kind of money.”
Or, as a second operative who has worked with Trump’s small-dollar fundraising operation, put it, “I don’t know how much these Trump donors — if he doesn’t win — want to give to the RNC.”
Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire who bragged during the primaries about how he didn’t need anyone else’s cash to run for president, would appear at first to be the unlikeliest of Republican fundraising heroes. But the combination of his celebrity, anti-establishment populism, and running against Clinton has led to a windfall, even as his skeletal campaign did little for more than a year to cultivate a donor list or build digital infrastructure to lure contributors.
“People are pouring in and we’re having to manage the inflow,” said one of the operatives familiar with the Trump operation.
It is impossible to piece together a complete picture of Trump’s finances due to different reporting deadlines for Trump’s various committees. But as of the end of July he had amassed $50 million in small contributions into his campaign, FEC records show. He has since announced he raised $90 million in August “mostly” from small donors both directly for his campaign and in joint committees shared with the Republican National Committee — suggesting at least $45 million raised last month came from small contributors. Additionally, there is some money from small contributors in those shared RNC accounts — Trump said there was $37 million still in them at the end of July — that he has helped raise.
Trump’s success dwarfs his GOP predecessors. McCain and Romney, in 2008 and 2012, respectively, raised just less than $64 million in contributions under $200, according to FEC records (McCain, notably, accepted public funds in the 2008 general election).
Trump still lags far behind the pace-setting Democrats. President Obama raised an enormous $483.6 million in contributions of less than $200 in 2012, FEC records show. Sanders raised almost $202 million in small donations just during the 2016 primary. And Clinton has raised almost $156 million in such contributions through the end of July, according to the FEC.
Democrats seem to vacillate between comforting themselves with all that Trump continues to do wrong — botching Mike Pence’s announcement, the high-spam rate on their first email, the volume of ads targeting Democrats — and concern about his successes in spite of that.
“I would just put it in the perspective of they’re still not doing as well as they should be doing and they’re doing too little too late,” said Kenneth Pennington, who served as digital director for Bernie Sanders. “Once they start copying some of things Democrats are doing, then I’ll get worried.”
Trump is certainly spending big to raise small money. In July, he poured $8.4 million into his San Antonio-based digital firm, Giles-Parscale, most of which was spent on online advertising and prospecting for donors. People familiar with the Trump operation say that the campaign has essentially told digital vendors that it will run as many Facebook and Google ads as possible, so long as investing in the particular ad is generating positive cash flow, or return on investment.
“We’ve had a positive ROI on everything,” said one Trump campaign official.
Brad Parscale, who runs the Trump digital operation and began working for the Trump family before they entered politics, has increasingly begun traveling to New York and accumulating power within the campaign. Last week, Donald Trump Jr. visited Pascale’s operation in San Antonio to thank the employees, including RNC officials, dispatched there.
“Every time there’s been a change in leadership, he’s gotten significantly more authority,” an operative who has worked with the campaign said of Parscale. Of course, the ever-increasing flow of money to Trump Tower has certainly helped.
On Aug. 31, the day Trump went to Mexico and the last day of the reporting period that will be revealed this week, Trump raised an enormous $5 million. The campaign ran a dizzying 107,000 different ad combinations on Facebook on that day alone, according to Lindsay Walters, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman, swapping out different text, graphics and videos to determine what performed strongest.
A typical day involves 40,000 to 50,000 such combinations, Walters said. Another person familiar with the Trump and RNC digital operation said there has been some strain simply creating content fast enough to fill all the ad slots that are making them money.
In an atypical arrangement for a presidential campaign, the RNC is actually taking a cut of all the small-dollar fundraising done through its joint committee with Trump (Romney received 100 percent of the joint committee’s small donations, in contrast). The agreement was struck back in May, when Trump emerged as the nominee with little infrastructure or experience to execute a large-scale digital operation. As a result, the RNC will end 2016 will access to a far larger email and donor file than ever before.
“A lot of them probably don’t realize that 20 percent of the money goes to the RNC otherwise they probably wouldn’t give,” said one of the operatives who has worked with Trump and the RNC. “People are giving money to the joint fundraising committee because Donald Trump’s name is on it.”
Indeed, almost all of the ads prominently incorporate Trump’s image or name — offering dinner with Trump, coffee with Ivanka Trump, lunch with Eric Trump. And the appeals aren’t just for petty cash. Trump has run an extensive email campaign asking for $184 for signed copies of The Art of the Deal — an unusually large sum to seek online. “We wouldn’t be running all that stuff if it wasn’t working,” said a person who has worked with the campaign.
In a sign of the potency of Trump’s name, others are trying to capitalize, as well. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, has been blitzing its own email list with Trump-themed missives. So far in September, the NRSC has offered Trump-Pence yard signs, bumper stickers, bracelets, magnets and t-shirts, even as strategists have urged Senate candidates themselves to distance themselves from Trump on the trail.
Other, insurgent-style Republicans have found success among small donors in the past. Ben Carson’s primary campaign floundered by he still raised $48 million among those who gave less than $200. Ted Cruz raised more than $60 million from such givers before he dropped out.
That is the catch-22 for a Republican establishment that, thanks to Trump, is now awash in a potentially powerful list of new givers — the energy and money is for the anti-establishment candidates.
Fred Malek, a top Republican presidential fundraiser for decades, said Trump’s singular appeal to small donors could be just that. “It seems to me that it is not necessarily transferrable,” he said.