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Clinton campaign says it has experienced its own small donor boom

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's Humphrey-Mondale dinner, Friday in St. Paul. (Jim Mone/AP)

This post has been updated.

Since the beginning of the year, Hillary Clinton has seen increased contributions from donors giving less than $200 to her campaign, thanks in part, according to campaign figures, to a dramatic increase in people giving online.

New Clinton campaign data reveals a change in Clinton’s fundraising model, from one that in 2015 relied on large donations to one that leans more heavily on small donations of the sort that have funded her competitor for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders.

During the last three months of 2015, Clinton raised just 18 percent of her campaign money from Web solicitations. In February, more than 50 percent was donated online for the first time, a trend campaign officials planned for and expect to continue during the primary season.

Sanders's official campaign account has been outraising Clinton's in the past few months. The Vermont senator portrays himself as a populist, describing Clinton as a candidate more reliant on Wall Street and other interests. As Sanders's contribution and vote totals have risen, Clinton has kicked back at the caricature.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we have more than 750,000 donors, and the vast majority of them are giving small contributions,” Clinton said at the most recent Democratic candidates debate.

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Last weekend, Clinton's digital strategist, Teddy Goff, followed up in an interview. “That’s a huge number,” said Goff, who advised the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. He noted that Obama hit 1 million donors at the end of February in 2008, a year when the Iowa caucuses were held a month earlier than in 2016. “The Obama campaign set the gold standard,” he said. "Who would have thought we'd be hot on their heels?"

Students of campaign-finance trends agree that Clinton is doing well among small donors, those giving less than $200.

“She had a large number of people who gave her small contributions,” said Michael Malbin, the political scientist who leads the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington. He, too, compares Clinton’s record with Obama’s. “She raised almost as much from small donors in 2015 as Obama did in 2007,” Malbin said.

But the 24-year-old digital director of the Sanders campaign, Kenneth Pennington, takes a different view. The Clinton record is not so impressive given the rapid pace of technological change, he says.

“Any campaign that wants to defeat the Republican nominee and win in November will have to do a whole lot better than what was done eight years ago, when the iPhone was first invented,” Pennington said in an interview Tuesday, noting that the Sanders campaign has about doubled Clinton’s total donor base, claiming contributions from 1.5 million people, most of whom give a small amount. Sanders's campaign points out that in 2015, nearly 60 percent of Clinton’s total amount raised had come from individuals who had given the maximum of $2,700 per election, compared with just 2.3 percent of Sanders's total that had come from maxed-out donors.

Bernie Sanders’s fundraising prowess

Clinton’s team says that the size of its average donations is changing dramatically in 2016. So far, the campaign says, average donations are about $56, compared with Sanders’s average of $27. Clinton campaign officials say the former secretary of state’s numbers are higher in part because the campaign has emphasized getting repeat contributions from people, encouraging them to move from double-digit contribution to the minimum reportable donation of $200 and beyond.

Clinton campaign officials had always looked to replicate the online success of the Obama campaigns.

Today, campaign officials say they are benefiting from programs they launched last year to encourage donors to save their credit-card number online.

More than 35,000 people have now made an initial donation of under $200 and then continued to give and surpassed that, campaign officials say. This group has now given an average of 3.5 times and contributed more than $19 million, he said.

In coming days, Clinton campaign officials said they planned to introduce innovations including a one-click recurring donation feature that will make contributing even easier.

Clinton had always sought to integrate donation activities with voter outreach and mobilization. To encourage online participation, the campaign offers volunteers the chance to participate in weekly calls with campaign officials, sometimes including Clinton. Last week, a campaign official said that 15,000 people signed up to join such a call.

Generating online participation including donations is a huge goal of both campaigns. The Clinton team acknowledges Sanders’s success.

"The Sanders team is doing a terrific job, and they are ahead of us in small donors,” Goff said. “Our argument is that we are both doing a pretty good job. This is not a zero-sum game. The democracy is stronger when large numbers of people give small donations. We have 750,000 donors; Bernie has even more. That's a great sign for the party."

Matea Gold contributed to this article.