Bernie Sanders kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign with a fundraising bang, raising a staggering $5.9 million from more than 223,000 donors in the first 24 hours after his official launch Tuesday. According to his campaign, that works out to an average donation of, you guessed it, $27.
As I explained last month, there’s no authoritative record book for campaign launches. 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. The Great 24-Hour Fundraising Primary does not award any delegates. That said, Bernie’s figures are mind-blowing and suggest that support for the only democratic socialist in the race still runs deep among the grass-roots left.
For comparison: Kamala Harris reported raising $1.5 million on the first day of her campaign in January, a figure that matched the amount Bernie himself raised during the first 24 hours of his 2016 presidential campaign, which was thought to be a record at the time. (Hillary Clinton didn’t voluntarily release her first-day numbers for 2016, nor has most of the 2020 field. But if anyone can top these numbers, they likely wouldn’t keep it a secret.)
Bernie’s 2020 start also appears to be a record for the number of individual donations on the first day of a campaign—nearly six times the 38,000 donors Harris claimed in her first 24 hours, which gave her an average donation of $37. If Harris’ insta-fundraising was evidence of her entry into the top tier of the Democratic field, then Sanders’ haul is proof he never left.
Small-donor dollars will play a major role in the 2020 nomination, particularly as Democrats swear off corporate PAC money and continue to rail against the megadonors. Candidates will also use these kind of arbitrarily time-limited hauls—pegged to a campaign launch or some other specific event, be it a debate performance or a Trump attack—as modern day “money bombs” to garner free media attention and to show their base’s strength. There are more tangible benefits, as well. Such networks serve as a near-renewable resource that a candidate can continue to tap until his 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. Meanwhile, candidates who rely on big-dollar checks 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, by working the phones, or by holding traditional fundraisers, all of which take time and money.
This 24-hour total is yet more evidence that Sanders is by far the best positioned in the Democratic field to take advantage of these new fundraising dynamics. Many of Bernie’s rivals have followed the policy path he set out in 2016 with his insurgent challenge to Clinton, but none can claim to have the same small-donor strength that he does. When the New York Times recently looked at six years of federal election filings from ActBlue, the Democratic Party’s dominant donation-processing platform, they found 2.1 million people had donated online to Sanders during that time period, 87 percent of which gave exclusively to him. His lead on the field is so big that his donor base is the size of all the other potential Democratic hopefuls combined. Beto O’Rourke was in a distant second with a comparatively scant 743,000 donors, 72 percent of which gave only to him. Elizabeth Warren came in third with 343,000 online donors (40 percent exclusive), followed by Kirsten Gillibrand with 272,000 donors (52 percent exclusive), and Kamala Harris with 239,000 (47 percent exclusive). A past donation doesn’t guarantee a future one, but Sanders won’t have to work nearly as hard as his rivals to find people who are friendly to his cause and willing to prove it with a few bucks.
Small-dollar donations can’t buy the nomination. Sanders raised more than $200 million in increments of $200 or less in the 2016 cycle, and yet Clinton’s nomination was never really in doubt. But all those small-dollar donations can combine to buy a candidate more time in the race. If these first-day figures tell us anything, then, it’s that of all the potential hurdles Bernie faces in 2020, money won’t be one of them.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.