The Slatest

Kamala Harris Raised a Bernie-esque Boatload From Small Donors in Just One Day

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for President of the United States, at Howard University, her alma mater, on January 21, 2019 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for President of the United States, at Howard University, her alma mater, on January 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. Al Drago/Getty Images

Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign got off to a very fast start in fundraising, perhaps even historically so. The California Democrat announced Tuesday that she had raised $1.5 million from roughly 38,000 donors in the first 24 hours after she made her 2020 plans official.

There’s no authoritative record book for these numbers. Candidates don’t always announce their first-day hauls, and few professional observers paid close attention to such totals in the pre-internet days, when donating to a politician involved much more than a few clicks. But Harris’ dollar-figure matched the amount Bernie Sanders reported raising during the first 24 hours of his 2016 campaign—and Harris reported having 3,000 more initial donors than Sanders did. (Hillary Clinton didn’t release her first-day numbers for 2016.) Bernie—whose campaign was celebrated for its small-donation game—claimed an initial average donation of about $43.50; Kamala can boast of an average of just $37. Harris’ insta-fundraising is more evidence that she’ll be able to compete in what is expected to be a deep primary field.

Other big-name Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have not released any fundraising numbers to date, though both are still technically in the exploratory phase of their bids. That difference, though, could be a further boon to Harris, who will likely now enjoy a feedback loop of sorts, in which her rapid fundraising start earns her more attention, which in turn boosts her name recognition, which in turn earns her even more cash, and then more attention. This possibility was likely part of the political calculus behind her decision to jump into the race early. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Harris made building her small-donor list a priority in the leadup to her 2020 run. According to FEC records, just 14 percent of the cash she raised for her 2016 Senate campaign came from donors who gave $200 or less, but 74 percent of the money she brought in during the past two years fit that definition of small donations.

Harris won’t be the only candidate with a stockpile of small-donor dollars in 2020, particularly as Democrats swear off corporate PAC money, and as small-dollar donations are increasingly used as a metric to gauge support, including by the Democratic National Committee when it sends out debate invites. Sanders’ 2016 campaign should serve as a blueprint for the field: The Vermont senator was able to harness the power of the attention-grabbing “money bombs” that lesser candidates like Ron Paul used in the past and fold it more fully into his message. As his campaign materials never failed to point out, Sanders’ political operation was paid for by Bernie’s legions of fans, “not the billionaires.” Today, Harris’ team is similarly tying her small donors directly to her “For the People” pitch. As Harris’ digital strategist told Politico: “These numbers reveal a campaign powered by the people—an energetic, nationwide movement eager to elect Senator Harris and support her vision of an America that actually works for the people.”

There are also tangible benefits to relying on small donors. Such networks serve as a near-renewable resource that a candidate can continue to tap until her supporters either can’t afford to give any more or they reach their maximum contribution limit of $2,700, whichever comes first. A campaign can solicit small donations in good times and bad. Candidates who rely on big-dollar checks, meanwhile, need to do more than send out an email blast when they have bills to pay. They need staff to find new donors, either through online outreach, working the phones, or by holding traditional fundraisers, all of which take time and money.

By launching her campaign early, Harris has had to contend with critics from the left who have found fault with her pre-Senate record as a prosecutor. But her early entrance also means she currently has the stage mostly to herself. That relative solitude, however, won’t last forever. It’s likely that if Harris’ first-day haul is indeed a record, it won’t stand for long given the fundraising prowess of some could-be rivals. Sanders, for instance, raised more than $200 million in increments of $200 or less in the 2016 cycle, and Beto O’Rourke brought in a total of $38 million from roughly 800,000 donors in the final full quarter of his 2018 Senate campaign. If and when one or both jump in, it would be a surprise if they aren’t able to top Harris’ haul.