Bernie Sanders — who swore off big-money fundraisers and criticized Hillary Clinton’s fundraising as “obscene” during the 2016 campaign — is changing his approach as the scramble for Democratic campaign cash heats up.
The Vermont senator has decided to hold in-person fundraising events where donors of all means will be invited and the media will be allowed. He has also hired a fundraiser to oversee the effort, a position he did not have in his 2016 bid.
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The moves, described by campaign sources to POLITICO, amount to an acknowledgment by Sanders that his online-only approach to raising money was leaving significant amounts of money on the table. That cash could be decisive in a primary with nearly two dozen candidates competing fiercely for money: Sanders’ top rival, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, is raking in huge sums from major Democratic donors in the early weeks of the race with a slew of fundraisers.
The altered strategy is a sign that Sanders is running a different kind of campaign in 2020, shedding some of his resistance to a side of politics he’s instinctively repelled by.
Still, this is far from a full embrace of big money by the candidate who loved to boast that his average donation in 2016 was $27. His campaign has dubbed the events he plans to hold “grassroots fundraisers.” They’re expected to have a relatively low ticket price, but larger donors will be able to attend and could potentially get face time with the candidate.
The Sanders campaign did not answer further questions about the events, such as how much tickets would typically cost.
“These open-press events are opportunities for engaging with our supporters on the ground and grassroots organizing,” said Arianna Jones, Sanders’ communications director. “Anything supporters decide to give beyond the ticket price, while appreciated, is up to them.”
Running the campaign’s new fundraising arm will be Malea Stenzel Gilligan, the former senior director of governance for the National Wildlife Federation and past executive director of the progressive political organization VoteVets. Her title on the campaign is director of development. The campaign did not say how many additional finance hires, if any, it plans to make.
Gilligan will be charged with growing Sanders’ presence among donors from an online-only operation that powered his 2016 bid into a somewhat more traditional fundraising apparatus that includes face-to-face events. Sanders raised $238 million in 2016, while organizing few fundraisers — a feat that set him apart from Clinton, whose long ties to the Democratic establishment raised her millions of dollars but became a political liability.
Sanders raked in $18 million during the first three months of this year, more than any other declared candidate at the time. But the massive size of the 2020 field is breeding intense competition for campaign dollars big and small, making it necessary for all the candidates, even a fundraising star like Sanders, to try everything, said Taryn Rosenkranz, founder and CEO of the digital firm New Blue Interactive.
“Fundraising and in-person events are how people get to know you better,” said Rosenkranz. “With a crowded field like this, candidates are going to have to do both digital and in-person fundraising: People want to know you, they want to meet you. It’s an additional thrill for them.”
The Sanders campaign appears to be trying to both collect money in new ways, and push its online donors for more cash as it tries to keep up in the escalating 2020 money war. Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said in a recent email to small-dollar donors that the average contribution so far this month was only $16 — not the typical $27 — and pushed them to give more.
“Our average contribution has been steadily in decline,” he wrote, encouraging supporters to chip in an extra $10. “Here’s why this is a hurdle for our campaign: For each $2,800 max-out check one of our opponents receives from a wealthy campaign contributor, we must receive 175 donations to keep up.”
As they vie to engage voters thirsty for campaign finance reform — while still raising large sums of money — candidates are providing more transparency around their fundraisers. They’re experimenting with everything from live-streaming otherwise private parties to holding “grassroots” events, which the Sanders campaign is now embracing.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced in February she was swearing off closed-door fundraisers, but left open the possibility of in-person events with fees. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttegieg also holds such fundraisers with a lower ticket price in addition to big-donor events. It’s an approach that Barack Obama used at the start of his 2008 run, as he tried to convert the energy at his in-person events into fundraising success by asking crowds to donate money.
“It’s a smart way to have some face time with people and feel like you’re getting something out of it,” said Ami Copeland, deputy national finance director for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Sanders will continue his pledge to reject money from corporations, pharmaceutical companies and Wall Street. But there are other unanswered questions about how Sanders is structuring his new fundraising approach, like whether bigger donors might get extra attention from Sanders or his staff, or other added perks. Earlier this year, Warren also vowed to not give wealthy donors any special access to her during the primary.
Copeland said there’s no reason to think Sanders will start selling access to Wall Street types, “but does someone who gives $250 or $2,000 — do they get anything different from someone who gets $25?” Copeland said. “Who knows, maybe they’ll get a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s or something.”
While most candidates have a dedicated finance team to help them court donors and throw fundraisers, Sanders rejected having such a staff in 2016. He held a small number of fundraising events, including a concert headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a meet-and-greet at a Chicago theater.
At the time, a handful of wealthy progressive donors eager to support Sanders complained he was stiff-arming them, and some in the Sanders campaign pushed him to hire a finance director. He never did.
“We left millions on the table,” said one 2016 Sanders aide.
Sanders had relatively few well-heeled backers compared with Clinton, but a handful of Hollywood and business donors did give him money. He collected $5,400 from television host Bill Maher; $5,000 from actor Shia LaBeouf; $5,000 from Jake Burton Carpenter, founder of Burton snowboard company; $2,700 from studio executive David Geffen; $2,700 from actress Susan Sarandon; and $2,700 from Bay Area attorney and Democratic donor Guy Saperstein.
“I would be happy to do something for Bernie,” Saperstein said in a recent interview. “I‘m going to support both [Sanders and Warren] as much as I can and we’ll see which one does better in the initial primaries.”