Bernie Sanders loves to talk about the fact that he doesn’t have a super-PAC backing his campaign. But the true state of his fundraising strategy is even more astonishing than that: The Sanders campaign doesn’t have a finance team.
And that’s a big deal.
Every competitive presidential campaign in recent election cycles has had team of people exclusively dedicated to finances: figuring out how much money the campaign needs, putting together a plan to get that money, and then making it all come together.
It’s considered a fundamental part of a modern presidential campaign, right up there with having a team to deal with the press. But Sanders may be changing that.
Call it a reinvention of campaign funding, but the Vermont senator has shown so far that a campaign can operate just fine without a fleet of green-visors counting the cash.
“I’ve never heard of a presidential campaign, even a minor party presidential campaign, that didn’t have a fundraising team,” said one campaign finance attorney. “But, OK if it’s working.”
And, judging by Sanders’s latest fundraising numbers, it is.
“In the past there was always the digital team and the finance team and they hated each other,” said Craig Engle, a campaign finance attorney. “But now you’ve got a situation—at least with Bernie Sanders—where now the digital team and the finance team is the same team.”
Symone Sanders, a spokesperson for the campaign, confirmed to The Daily Beast that the campaign doesn’t have anyone on staff focused full-time on raising money. Instead, she said, the campaign relies on its digital and data teams to bring home the small-dollar bacon.
“We do the bulk of our fundraising through the digital grassroots media,” said Symone Sanders. “We don’t have an official fundraising team.”
“We don’t have quote-unquote fundraisers,” she added. “Sen. Sanders doesn’t go to the fancy dinners where people pay upwards of $5,000 to attend. We have mini-rallies, if you will, fundraiser rallies, if you will. We’ve only done a few of those.”
She estimated that the campaign has had fewer than a dozen in-person fundraising events. Instead, it’s raked in massive amounts of cash—$33 million in the last three months of 2015, and about $73 million over the course of the year—through online fundraising. Politico reported that Revolution Messaging, a firm in D.C., manages the campaign’s online fundraising. In the second and third quarters of 2015, his campaign paid the firm a total of $3.8 million. So: not a terrible ROI.
Larry Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Sanders’s decision to opt out of having a finance team is “remarkable.”
“Who isn’t impressed with Sanders’s fundraising?” he said. “He has more or less kept pace with Clinton, and in a key way—small gifts, which have a lot more punch in politics—Sanders has exceeded her by a mile.”
In those last three months, Sanders raised just 4 million dollars less than Hillary Clinton, despite having zero staff dedicated to fundraising. And according to the site p2016, which tracks campaign staff hires, Clinton has upwards of 30 finance team staffers.
It’s a factoid that seems to be giving Team Clinton a little agita. In a fundraising email sent Jan. 6 with the subject line “nervous,” campaign manager Robby Mook solicited $1 donations.
“Last month, we told you about how much money Bernie Sanders’ campaign was raising,” Mook wrote. “Now, the other shoe has dropped: I just found out that he’s outspending us on TV advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Fundraising-email hysterics are usually worth little more than an eye roll. In this case, though, Mook makes a pretty decent argument: The success of Sanders’s unorthodox fundraising strategy has caught everyone off guard.
Sanders can skate by without a fundraising team because of the kind of donors he attracts. His staff told The Washington Post that 99.9 percent of the people who have given to his campaign have contributed less than the legal limit—in other words, the people backing him aren’t shelling out $1,000 or $2,000 at cocktail party events. And they can give again.
Those small-dollar donors, by the way, take a qualitatively different approach to giving than donors who give up to the legal $2,700 limit. Engle said donors who shell out four figures tend to prefer giving it to a fundraiser they know or at a social event where they feel like they’re part of a group. That’s why campaign fundraising emails—from any campaign—rarely ask for more than $100.
“There’s no point,” Engle said; people don’t give that much money to the Internet.
That’s why candidates like Clinton (and Bush, and Rubio, and Cruz) pony up big bucks to hire fundraising professionals who have connections to open-handed would-be contributors. And getting that money costs a lot of money.
But getting people on the Internet to click a link on Facebook and chip in $25? Doesn’t cost much. And if you have the right candidate—say, for instance, a perpetually disheveled old guy from Vermont with a distinctive message and even more distinctive accent—plus the right digital marketing firm, you can make it work.