The hunt for dollars in the 2020 presidential campaign

By Allen Peng

/ CBS News

The 2020 presidential campaign is already taking off, with several Democratic primary contenders releasing their fundraising totals for the first quarter of 2019. But notice the high percentage of small donations each candidate has. There seems to be a growing trend of people donating to political campaigns, not writing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars but just giving a few bucks here and there. Why is that?

On this week's episode of the "Where Did You Get This Number?" podcast, host Anthony Salvanto explores the nature of individual political donations within the context of campaigns, psychology, and the campaign finance system as a whole.

Presidential candidates' desire to project grassroots support, especially through small donors, has made candidates like former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke more viable, even though they might not have been in previous presidential cycles, according to Democratic strategist and CBSN contributor Lynda Tran.

"The reason he is where he's at is because he's got this massive list of donors and there is a tremendous sense that ordinary, everyday people are behind him," Tran said, in contrast to mainly relying on big donors such as businesses or interest groups.

Tran said much of the current political fundraising strategy started with former President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, citing his multi-million-person email list and how he was able to bring in people who normally didn't participate in the political process.

"You're seeing that the grassroots donor, this citation about the average amount donated, is an important marker to showcase that you have broad-based support, and that is likely to translate into support at the ballot box as well," she said.

But what makes someone want to donate to a political campaign in the first place?

Part of it is buying a kind of participation in the political process, according to Michael Barber, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He compared it to buying a ticket to a sports game.

"There's no expectation that me sitting in the stands cheering on my team is actually going to make a difference," Barber said. "But it's still fun to be there."

Online donation platforms, such as ActBlue, have made it much easier for everyday people to donate to political campaigns, while also making it easier for the campaigns to get donor data, since the Federal Elections Commission only collects data of people who donate more than $200.

But one effect of online donation platforms is that people are donating to campaigns outside of their own districts and states, according to Carrie Levine, deputy federal politics editor and senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.

"You saw regular people looking around saying, well, I'm in a safe district," Levine said, referring to the 2018 congressional midterm elections. "I don't really have a race that I could get very engaged with here, but man, this candidate in Kansas, Sharice Davids, or this candidate in Kentucky, Amy McGrath — they need the dollars, I'm going to send some money."

Subscribe to "Where Did You Get This Number?" and download the latest episode to learn more about how political donors differ from the average American, whether fundraising numbers are a good metric for a candidate's success, and more!

The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify. New episodes are available every other Monday.

Producers: Allen Peng, Luis Giraldo, Oscar Gonzalez

Intern: Zachary Shaw

Host: Anthony Salvanto

Twitter: @WDYGTN

Instagram: @getthisnumber

First published on April 2, 2019 / 6:33 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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