LOS ANGELES — The legacy of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 fundraising juggernaut is already shaping the architecture of the next presidential campaign.
Sanders has not yet said if he will run again in 2020. But two years after the Vermont senator demonstrated the potency of a populist message married to an online, small-dollar operation — he raised $54 million in donations of $200 or less by the end of 2015 alone — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and other top 2020 Democratic prospects are applying lessons drawn directly from his experience.
Harris recently became the latest potential presidential candidate to pledge to no longer accept money from corporate political action committees — a move adopted by an increasing number of progressive Democrats who calculate that they have more to gain than lose by forgoing corporate PAC money.
But Harris’ decision also reflected a broader — potentially more significant — effort to fortify her small-donor fundraising strategy ahead of the 2020 election.
She’s spending aggressively to bolster her digital campaign infrastructure and cultivate supporters online, creating a template that resembles the one that served Sanders so well against Hillary Clinton.
“People see a potential in terms of digital fundraising, so I’m not surprised to see some of our younger, more ambitious members moving on that front – especially members who, part of their base or appeal is to younger voters,” said Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and a former South Carolina state party chair.
Tracing the evolution of online fundraising to Howard Dean in 2004, Harrison said, “I just continue to see the bar continuing to move up.”
In the first quarter of 2018 alone, Harris spent more than $600,000 on web advertising and digital campaign consulting, far surpassing spending in that area from other senators’ principal campaign accounts, including Sens. Sanders, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Roughly 20 months before the first 2020 primary contests, Harris is spending big on online ads and email list development — grooming potential supporters long before a campaign begins in earnest.
The heavy spending represented more than two-thirds of Harris’ total haul for the quarter. Harris holds just more than $1.5 million on hand, but her early investment in digital could help her catch up to Democrats with more established followings online.
Harris has insisted she is focused on the 2018 midterm elections, helping every Democratic senator up for reelection raise money this year.
Appearing at campaign events throughout the country, Harris has raised more than $3 million for fellow Democratic senators this election cycle, according to her staff, including $170,000 through her email list for Doug Jones of Alabama.
“Right now, I’m just focused on what’s in front of me,” she said in an interview aired Monday on WWPM-FM’s “The Breakfast Club” in New York. “I’ve seen too many people focus on that thing out there, and they trip over the thing right in front of them.”
Yet Harris’ spending on digital outreach suggests a wider horizon for a senator not up for reelection until 2022. In the first three months of the year, Harris paid more than $100,000 a month — for a total of $356,539 — for web advertising to Revolution Messaging, the digital outfit used by Sanders in his 2016 presidential run.
Harris paid the company an additional $25,125 for consulting, while paying another firm, Authentic Campaigns, $247,750. The firm calls itself a “full-service digital strategy company that works for progressives who are ready to run innovative and unique digital campaigns.”
The California senator — who’s only in her second year in the Senate — remains lower profile than progressive icons such as Sanders and Warren, but she now has more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter and nearly 1 million on Facebook.
She’s also building a formidable base of small-dollar donors. On the 2016 campaign trail, Sanders famously touted his average campaign donation amount — $27. Harris, who relies on small donors for about three-quarters of her fundraising, boasts average donations of about $18.
Among several senators considered prospective candidates for president, only Sanders collects a larger proportion of his money from small donors.
“Smart digital investments have have helped Kamala Harris flip the fundraising paradigm and build a grassroots base to support her colleagues and her re-election,” said Sean Clegg, a senior Harris adviser, said in an email. “This is how future campaigns can and should be funded.”
In an email appeal to donors last week, Harris said she was “behind on our fundraising goals for the month” — a line used by many candidates, whether they are behind on their goals or not — and asked for donations of as little as $3.
But, Sanders-style, she also sought to translate Trump-era voter energy and anger into contributions. “Between trying to prevent Donald Trump from firing Robert Mueller to traveling the country to help Democrats retake Congress, there just hasn’t been much time to fundraise,” Harris wrote.
For Harris, the decision to swear off corporate PAC money appeared to square her rhetoric with her burgeoning courtship of small donors – and to cut off a line of criticism from the left.
Asked at a town hall meeting in Sacramento this month if she would reject donations from any corporation or corporate lobbyist, Harris replied, “It depends.”
When the questioner said, “Wrong answer,” Harris replied, “That’s not the answer you want to hear. It doesn’t make it wrong.”
But within weeks, Harris changed course.
Interviewed on “The Breakfast Club,” Harris said she “wasn’t expecting the question” at the forum and took time to think about it after.
"I think that money has had such an outside influence on politics, and especially with the Supreme Court determining Citizens United, which basically means that big corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money influencing our campaigns, right?” Harris said. “We're all supposed to have an equal vote, but money has now really tipped the balance between an individual having equal power in an election to a corporation. So I've actually made a decision since I had that conversation that I'm not going to accept corporate PAC checks. I just — I'm not."
Her decision brought Harris in line with Sanders, Booker, Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other progressives who have made similar pledges.
“I think what happens after every presidential cycle is the next campaign takes the template that they think worked in the previous [election] and runs with it,” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Sanders and Barack Obama.
Ceraso said Harris likely already possesses a solid fundraising list in part because of her associations with well-connected Democrats, including Obama, and that “I can see her growing out a list” even further.
However, he said, “It only matters if you’ve got an organic candidate who excites you … She has work to do, like any other candidate.”
While many Democratic strategists view swearing off corporate contributions as a largely symbolic measure – unlikely to significantly dent any Democratic presidential candidates’ fundraising operation — the issue could have deeper resonance in a 2020 primary infused with populist themes.
“She’s definitely leaving some money on the table, but corporate PAC contributions are relatively small in size in a massive presidential campaign,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist and adviser to former Sen. Barbara Boxer, Harris’ predecessor.
On the other hand, she said, “There’s a powerful feeling in America that corporations have too much power on both the left and the right. And we saw Bernie and Trump diving deep to get support around that message.”
In politics, Kapolczynski said, “I don’t minimize the power of the symbolic action.”