Many Democratic Candidates Are Embracing Grassroots Fundraisers

Aug 26, 2019
Originally published on August 26, 2019 4:15 pm
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More than ever before, Democratic presidential candidates are facing pressure from their supporters to reject big money. That means rejecting support from super PACs. And many are also calling for candidates to ditch big donors altogether. But here's the problem - Presidential campaigns are very expensive. So, as NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow reports, many candidates are embracing what they call grassroots fundraisers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It's a hot summer night in Brooklyn, and hundreds of Kamala Harris supporters are packed into a combination bowling alley and concert venue waiting to hear from their candidate. It's just like a rally, except there's a bar and a deejay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) Well, so far, you've heard my voice, but I brought two friends along.

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UNIDENTIFIED DEEJAY: And next on the mic is Kamala. Come on and sing that song. Check it out.

DETROW: Welcome to a grassroots fundraiser. At this event there are people who donated the maximum $2,8000, but the cheapest tickets go for $100, much lower than the traditional fundraiser price tag a donor pays to get in the room with a presidential candidate.

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KAMALA HARRIS: Let's talk a little bit about the current occupant of the White House, shall we?

(BOOING)

DETROW: Cory Booker has been holding many of these events, too - so has Bernie Sanders, most recently this past weekend in Minneapolis.

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BERNIE SANDERS: So I am asking you now not only for your support during this campaign, I am asking your support the day after we are inaugurated because we're going to have to take on very, very powerful special interests.

DETROW: The cheapest tickets at a Sanders grassroots fundraiser - the $27 that became the trademark average online donation during his 2016 White House run. Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir concedes that the events are mostly symbolic.

FAIZ SHAKIR: We honestly raise very little from these events per the total of the amount that comes into this campaign.

DETROW: Plus it's much more expensive to rent out and staff a venue compared to simply directing supporters to give money at the campaign's website. Shakir says the events are meant to thank supporters. They also capture more media attention than traditional fundraisers. And most importantly, there's political symbolism to the events too, especially for candidates like Harris who have been doing a lot of traditional higher-dollar fundraising events in Los Angeles and the Hamptons.

RUFUS GIFFORD: We are not just spending time with the traditional fundraising class. This is much more diverse group of people that we're engaging with.

DETROW: Rufus Gifford was the finance director for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. He compares the rise of these events to the symbolic contests the Obama campaign organized that year, when small money donors could enter to win a chance to have a private dinner with the president. But Gifford says he's frustrated with several of the Democratic candidates' discomfort with fundraising, most notably Elizabeth Warren, who set the tone for the Democratic field by announcing she wouldn't spend any time doing private fundraising this year. He says he understands the instinct to reject big money.

GIFFORD: Ultimately, more important than anything else right now - to me, at least - is beating Donald Trump. And whatever it takes to do that is what I want our candidates to do.

DETROW: Gifford says especially given how much money Trump and Republicans are raising without any of the qualms Democrats are showing. Now, not every candidate is rejecting traditional fundraising. Joe Biden has held 10 private fundraisers this month. But even Biden is allowing the press into those events, a major departure from past presidential campaigns. It's all a sign that, at least on the Democratic side, the emphasis is increasingly on online donations. And the traditional fundraiser may someday soon become less important.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.