The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Candidates reach for the ticket to Democratic debates: 65,000 donors

Buttons for the taking at an Iowa campaign stop by John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Delaney is offering to donate $2 to charity for every $1 campaign donation he receives.
Buttons for the taking at an Iowa campaign stop by John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Delaney is offering to donate $2 to charity for every $1 campaign donation he receives. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
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The latest turn in the Democratic presidential race looks a bit like an infomercial for a food dehydrator or Ginsu knives. Former congressman John Delaney stands in front of a whiteboard in an online video, pitching voters on a new way to double their money.

“It’s really simple, and it’s actually a pretty good deal,” the Maryland Democrat says. “ . . . You give one, I give two to a charity of your choice.”

You heard that right, folks. A candidate for president wants your donation so badly that he is willing to pay twice as much out of pocket.

The reason has little to do with traditional campaign fundraising and a lot to do with the new criteria the Democratic Party has laid out for qualifying for the first debates — either earn at least 1 percent support in a series of public polls of Democratic voters or attract 65,000 individual donors.

Hitting 65,000 has become a magic ticket for many of the party’s presidential candidates, who are struggling to rank in public polls given a field that already has 15 contenders, with several more waiting in the wings. The new criteria have proved to be a boon to lesser-known candidates seeking a national stage this summer and could create challenges for more-established politicians seeking to break away from the pack — with unpredictable repercussions for the party.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg reached his 65,000 goal last week after a successful CNN town hall brought him a new wave of donors. Businessman Andrew Yang put a counter on his homepage to drive the online energy past 65,000 donors for his candidacy, which is based around the idea of giving every American adult $1,000 every month. (Buttigieg and Yang are the only two candidates who do not regularly register with clear support in national polls to claim that they’ve reached that mark.)

Aides to Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru, and former housing secretary Julián Castro say their campaigns are also on track to qualify.

“We need 65,000 individual contributions,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) pleaded after her own CNN town hall, in a hotel hallway video that now tops her Twitter page. She asked each of her donors to find at least 10 other people to chip in a dollar as well.

The pitches, more focused on growing the number of donors than on raising money, mark a new step in the evolution of presidential campaign fundraising away from high-dollar donations from the wealthy and toward online fundraising from the party’s grass roots.

The rules were set by the Democratic Party less as a way to tap new funding sources than to ease frictions created by the 2016 nominating process, when supporters of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her campaign had an outsize role in setting the structure and timing of the debates. Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez has said he wants an “open and transparent” process that gives a “bigger voice” to the party’s low-dollar donors.

The Democratic Party also set the fundraising threshold with the goal of expanding the early debate stage to include as many as 20 candidates, who will be randomly divided to appear on consecutive nights in a two-day June debate hosted by NBC and a two-day July meeting hosted by CNN.

Using polling alone to filter the field, especially this early in the process, would almost certainly have meant a far smaller group of candidates onstage. Recent national polls have shown no more than a dozen candidates with 1 percent support, the criteria used to qualify for the first Democratic debate in 2015.

Party leaders have described the incentive for small-dollar donations as a win-win for the party and the candidates, building enthusiasm and adding to voter data that will come in handy during the general election. It is also a more merit-based approach than past criteria, which have looked beyond polling at factors like whether a campaign has opened offices in the early-voting states.

But the new rules have also transformed the tactics and focus of the campaign, and could eventually shape the outcome.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have refocused their online fundraising appeals to try to meet the 65,000 goal. “The number everyone’s talking about,” ran the headline of a recent Inslee email seeking individual donations to elevate the issue of climate change.

Other potential candidates who have drawn out their decision-making, including Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.) and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, could struggle if they enter the race late, giving themselves less time to corral donors. Candidates will be required to certify their donor numbers a couple of weeks before the first debate, using data from two campaign vendors that track donations, NGP VAN and ActBlue.

Candidates and campaign teams have been split on the merits of the party plan, even as everyone seems to have accepted the new rules.

“When you have a goal, it galvanizes people,” said Yang, who is focused on getting 200,000 donors in anticipation of the qualifications tightening for the Democratic debates this fall. “We need to keep the momentum going.”

He said the number of donors giving just a single dollar increased after the debate qualifications were announced.

Other candidates have been less enthusiastic. “We are about 40 percent there, so we are getting there,” said Patricia Ewing, a spokeswoman for Williamson, a self-described spiritual teacher who gained fame for her work with Oprah Winfrey.

But Ewing also played down the 65,000 number as “arbitrary,” and she was critical of Delaney’s gambit, which depends on having deep enough pockets to make major donations to charity in the heat of a presidential campaign.

“That’s a very transactional way to try to get onto the debate,” Ewing said. “We would just rather do it by getting our own numbers.”

Delaney, the wealthy founder of two commercial lending companies who announced his self-funded campaign for president in 2017, has built an extensive organization, with more than 20 staffers working out of eight Iowa offices alone. But he has not yet registered in many national polls, and until recently he has avoided any focus on fundraising.

“He wanted to talk to voters about issues,” said his spokesman Michael Hopkins, who was critical of the debate requirements. “It puts people who don’t build these big lists at a disadvantage.”

When Delaney announced his two-for-one debate challenge, there was a bit of derision in his tone.

“When I first looked at this qualification criteria, I said, ‘Well, it’s a little strange,’ ” Delaney said in his announcement. “Because it’s really kind of a money criteria.”

The idea of donating to charity in exchange for campaign contributions has previously been pioneered, with the blessing of the Federal Election Commission, by the corporate political action committee for Walmart, which was looking for a way to increase the number of employees helping the company contribute to political activities. Regulators have said it is legal for political committees to match and increase political donations, as long as the political donor does not receive a direct benefit.

Delaney’s campaign plans to make the two-for-one deal a more central part of his message moving forward, with public releases about the progress the campaign is making toward its goal, said Hopkins.

The matching program applies only to donations of $1, capping the amount of money Delaney will have to commit. He has selected 11 charities his donors can choose from and promises to make $2 donations in the name of his donors, though the tax benefits of the donation will not pass to voters.

“We have seen a lot of excitement,” Hopkins said. “This is going to be a continued thing, from now through the debates.”