“The FEC report once again highlights President Trump’s immense grassroots support among small donors. 98.79% of first quarter contributions to the Campaign and the joint committees came from ‘low-dollar’ contributions, defined as $200 or less.”
— Email from President Trump’s reelection campaign, April 15, 2019
“Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign has raised $12 million from more than 218,000 individual contributions in the first quarter of 2019. 98 percent of Harris’s contributions were under $100 ...”
— Email from the presidential campaign of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), April 1, 2019
These fundraising numbers tell an amazing story: Grass-roots donors are everywhere, funding 99 percent of Trump’s campaign and 98 percent of Harris’s. Watch out, rich donors, for the small dollar is king.
Except, a much less grassy picture emerges after digging into the data from the Federal Election Commission.
The president raised nearly $39 million for his reelection in the first three months of 2019. That includes his campaign and joint fundraising committees Trump set up with state and national Republican Party organizations.
How much came from small donors? Using Trump’s measurement — individual contributions of $200 or less — it’s 98.79 percent, his campaign says.
This is not a clear way to measure small-dollar donations, because the high-dollar contributions get blurred. They may represent only 1.21 percent of all contributions, but they could be huge. And they are.
Individuals are allowed to donate $2,800 to a presidential candidate’s campaign for the primary and the general election ($5,600 total). One of Trump’s joint fundraising committees, Trump Victory, can raise up to $360,600 from a single donor. That ceiling is expected to rise as more state-level Republican organizations join Trump Victory.
The way to measure small-dollar contributions is to add up all the donations of $200 or less, and then figure out what percentage of total fundraising they represented. That’s the norm for campaign-finance experts and reporters, and it’s what nonprofits that track money in politics emphasize.
It’s also what fact-checkers look for. PolitiFact gave Hillary Clinton a “mostly false” rating for claiming her 2016 presidential campaign depended “on small donations for the majority of our support.”
Using that metric — small-dollar contributions as a share of total fundraising — it turns out Trump’s campaign and joint committees raised 55 percent of their $39 million haul in small-dollar contributions. Still formidable, though not as punchy as 99 percent.
On the Democratic side, Harris is slicing the numbers in a similar fashion. Her campaign said in a news release that 98 percent of contributions were under $100. A Harris spokesman clarified that it’s actually 97 percent.
But looking at the overall fundraising picture, Harris raised $12 million in the first quarter, 37 percent of which came from small-dollar donations of $200 or less.
Why is there such a big gulf here, with 97 percent on one hand and 37 percent on the other? Because many of the Harris contributions above $100 were way above $100.
It’s the same dynamic with Trump. His campaign says nearly 99 percent of contributions were for $200 or less. But many of the other donations (in the 1 percent) were way over $200.
“It’s in all campaigns’ interests to report the information like Trump did. It makes them look like they’re appealing more to the grass roots,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign finance figures at OpenSecrets.org.
OpenSecrets reports small-dollar figures in the customary way: as a share of total fundraising.
“That’s the way it’s normally done. That’s how we display the information on our website,” Bryner said. “What matters to us as a money-in-politics organization is the proportion of the money that comes from different sources.”
Here’s what it looks like when you measure Harris’s and Trump’s small-dollar hauls as a share of all their fundraising. He comes in seventh place and she comes in ninth when stacking them up against all the Democrats who filed first-quarter FEC reports. (For Trump, the number includes his campaign and the two joint fundraising committees.)
By focusing on contributions under $200 or $100, rather than small-dollar contributions as a share of total fundraising, Harris and Trump are inviting several questions.
The same person could donate less than $200 to the same candidate or committee multiple times. After a certain point, that donor would cease to be a small-dollar type. But the numbers from Trump and Harris don’t include a caveat explaining this.
Harris’s news release is somewhat labyrinthine in saying “98 percent” of donations were under $100, while 99 percent of donors have yet to max out on the legal contribution limit. The limit, as we’ve noted, is $2,800 per election. So there’s a big pool of people between $100 and $2,800 that Harris is throwing into the mix here. The result is confusing. (Note: We previously said that we reached out to the Harris campaign and did not hear back before deadline on Tuesday. A Harris representative’s emails got caught in The Fact Checker’s spam filter.)
When we reached out to the Trump campaign, officials dug up a 2012 article in The Washington Post that found “nearly half of the donors to [President Barack] Obama’s reelection campaign in 2011 gave $200 or less, more than double the proportion seen in 2007.”
Basically, The Post once used this metric in an article, so why are we giving Trump flak for using it now in his campaign emails?
Trump’s team told us 875,000 donations were for $200 or less, while 889 were above that threshold. That covers the campaign and the joint fundraising committees in the first quarter.
“You cannot argue with President Trump’s prolific support from small donors,” a Trump campaign representative said. “This quarter, nearly 99 percent of all donations were $200 or less. There were 100,000 new individual donors in the quarter, bringing the total number of new donors to over a million since Inauguration Day. Counting actual people donating is the only true measure of grassroots support. Under any analysis, President Trump continues to set the standard for support from small dollar donors, just as he did in 2016 when he outraised Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton combined among small donors.”
Before we wrap up, it’s important to note that most super PACs won’t be reporting to the FEC until the summer. “That is going to paint a different fundraising picture, because that’s really where the big money goes,” Bryner noted.
Another campaign finance expert, Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice, said it’s useful to know how many campaign donations came in under $200. Federal law does not require candidates to itemize these donations in their FEC reports, so for many campaigns, it’s a blank spot. Trump’s campaign appears to be keeping track of all donations internally, no matter how small, Vandewalker said. (However, the president’s campaign is not itemizing these small-dollar donations in FEC filings, so it’s not possible to verify its numbers.)
“Typically, it is reported as a percentage of dollars rather than as a percentage of people or transactions … although the main reason for that is you’re not required to itemize people under $200,” Vandewalker said. “I actually think it’s an interesting or meaningful number.”
The Pinocchio Test
The only thing better than 97 percent grass-roots funding ... is 99 percent grass-roots funding. But a lot of this grass is made of plastic.
These numbers and news releases might be technically accurate, but they won’t help the lay reader trying to figure out what kind of donors are funding Harris and Trump. Instead, they give a distorted view that small-dollar donors overwhelmingly are funding these campaigns when that is simply not the case.
Scrubbing their FEC reports, Trump raised 55 percent of his $39 million haul from small-dollar donations while Harris raised 37 percent of her $12 million from these $200-or-less contributions.
Harris and Trump are talking about small-dollar donations without saying how many came from repeat donors. Remember, those donors could have blown past the $200 threshold and still be included in the small-dollar figures being offered up by these two campaigns.
We award both candidates Two Pinocchios.
(Update, April 17): After we published this fact-check, we learned of other Democratic candidates spinning their first-quarter fundraising numbers like Harris and Trump. Two Pinocchios all around.
- Here’s a senior adviser to Beto O’Rourke, noting that “98% of contributions [were] under $200.” A fuller look, however, shows that O’Rourke raised 59 percent of his $9.37 million from such donations in the first quarter.
- Here’s a news release from John Hickenlooper’s campaign, noting that 85 percent of donations were under $200. But Hickenlooper raised $2 million total, 10 percent of which came from donations under $200.
- Here’s an aide to Kirsten Gillibrand, tweeting that “92% of contributions [were] under $200.” Of the $3 million total for Gillibrand in the first quarter, 17 percent came from small-dollar donations.
- Here’s a news release from Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, which says “85 percent of all donors gave less than $100.” But they’re actually talking about donations, not donors. (Some could have given two or more times.) And if you look at Klobuchar’s $5.2 million in total fundraising, 35 percent came from donations of $200 or less.
(Update, April 30): Former vice president Joe Biden has entered the race. In a fundraising email, his campaign said that it “raised $6.3 million in its first 24 hours” and that “it’s proof we are running a truly grassroots campaign.” The Biden team noted that “97% of online donations were under $200,” but did not break down how much of the total $6.3 million came from donations of $200 or less. Representatives for Biden did not respond to emails seeking comment. Biden entered the race after the most recent FEC filing deadline, so we don’t have a fundraising report for him yet like we do for all the other candidates. The next FEC filing deadline is July 15.
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