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What The Big Sanders And O’Rourke Fundraising Numbers Don’t Capture

The huge, Day 1 fundraising totals released by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign last month ($5.9 million) and then former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign last week ($6.1 million) are great signs for both candidates. The numbers suggest both have passionate, intense supporters. A successful presidential campaign needs money, and it looks like O’Rourke and Sanders will have plenty. Moreover, there is some relationship between strong early fundraising and winning the primary.

Here’s what those big totals don’t necessarily show: broad support or diverse support.

The broad point should be obvious. Sanders’s campaign says it received contributions from more than 220,000 people on the first day of the campaign, O’Rourke’s from 112,000. That’s a lot of people who care enough to chip in, but let’s put those numbers in the context of the electorate. More than 13 million people voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. More than 17 million backed Hillary Clinton. In the general election later that year, just over 137 million people participated, including nearly 66 million who voted for Clinton. So the people who have given to these two candidates are a fraction of a fraction of the total number of Democratic-leaning voters in America.

The diversity point is maybe less apparent. We don’t have any real data on Sanders and O’Rourke’s donors in terms of their gender, income or race.1 But it’s very likely that the donors to O’Rourke and Sanders — and the other 2020 candidates, including President Trump — are disproportionately upper-income, well-educated and white. Those are the people who are most likely to donate to political campaigns in America, and they’re not all that representative of the Democratic electorate in full.

A few data points:

  • When asked by the Pew Research Center in the fall of 2016 if they had donated to a political campaign over the previous year, 24 percent of Democrats with incomes between $75,000 and $150,000 said they had, compared to 8 percent of those with incomes below $30,000. Donating to campaigns was also more common among people with more education (33 percent of Democrats with postgraduate degrees had donated, compared to 6 percent who did not attend college), older people (32 percent among those over 65, 11 percent of those ages 18-29) and white people (21 percent of white Democrats, 7 percent of Latinos.2)
  • A report published in 2016 by the liberal-leaning think tank Demos estimated that in 2012, with then-President Barack Obama on the ballot, just 8 percent of Democratic presidential campaign donors were African-American and just 2 percent were Latino, even though 12 percent of the U.S. adult population was African-American and 9 percent was Latino.3 And comparing donors’ demographics to the whole U.S. population may understate the discrepancy, since nonwhite people tend to vote Democratic. According to exit polls, in 2012, 24 percent of Obama voters were African-American and 14 percent were Latino. The Demos analysis also found that even small donors were fairly well off. About 15 percent of those who contributed less than $200 to Democrats were millionaires, a group that makes up just 3 percent of the American adult population.
  • Another 2016 Demos analysis of donors to candidates in Washington, D.C. — an overwhelmingly Democratic city where most residents are not white — found the same pattern: Donors as a group were notably more white and upper-income than the electorate.
  • A 2015 analysis of major-party donations early in the 2016 election cycle found that more money had been donated from residents in 10 ZIP codes near New York’s Central Park than the combined total donated from the roughly 1,200 ZIP codes in the U.S. that are majority black.

I’m not saying everyone who donated to O’Rourke or Sanders this year is a white hipster. In fact, I suspect that the Democratic donor base in 2018 was more diverse in terms of gender and race than in previous cycles, given how many prominent female and nonwhite candidates were running and the antipathy many women and nonwhite Democrats have for Trump. And some of those 2018 donors are likely part of the group that has contributed to O’Rourke or Sanders in the 2020 cycle. Sanders also appears to be drawing in younger donors. His aides said around half the contributors (more than 108,000) who gave on the first day were age 39 or younger and that donors’ most common age was 30. (O’Rourke has not released that kind of data about his donors.) And the way O’Rourke and Sanders are raising money, with lots of small donations, reflects a fundraising model that many Democrats want to see, since it doesn’t tie candidates to very wealthy people who donate huge amounts.

Still, a small-dollar campaign donor is not necessarily a person with a small amount of dollars. In 2016, the Los Angeles Times did a comprehensive analysis of the 7 million donations (from more than 2 million people) that Sanders received that cycle. The paper concluded that Sanders’s donors were disproportionately “in the ZIP Codes with a high proportion of college graduates.” (People with degrees tend to have higher incomes.) Also, we kind of already know that O’Rourke and Sanders are likely bigger phenoms among white voters than nonwhite voters: The Texan’s 2018 Senate campaign did really well in the suburbs compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016 but not as strongly in heavily Latino areas, and Sanders struggled in the heavily black deep South in his 2016 presidential campaign.

In other words, while focusing on fundraising is a better way of assessing early-stage campaigns than empty conjecture or punditry — at least fundraising is a tangible signal of voter interest — it’s still giving us a somewhat skewed perspective of who is “doing well” in the 2020 cycle because it’s probably not capturing the views of the full Democratic Party. Pew estimates that about 40 percent of the people who backed Clinton in the 2016 general election were not white and 57 percent were not college graduates. In 2017, about a third of registered voters who identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents were white Americans without college degrees. Exit polls suggest that more than a third of the voters who backed Clinton live in families with incomes of less than $50,000 per year.

This is not just a problem with campaign fundraising. Other metrics we use in the early stages of a presidential campaign are also skewed in ways that overrepresent voters with more money and education. Major campaign rallies (which we evaluate for crowd size), for example, tend to happen on nights and weekends, which is convenient for people with 9-to-5 work schedules. But people who don’t work that shift are disproportionately black, Latino or low-income.

It’s important to understand the distorted view these metrics give as you watch the campaign. In the 2008 Democratic primary, the candidate (Obama) who had huge rallies and a massive grassroots fundraising operation narrowly won the primary against a rival (Clinton) who in many states won white voters without degrees who might not have been attending rallies or giving lots of money to campaigns. In the 2016 Democratic primary, the candidate with huge rallies and a massive grassroots fundraising operation (Sanders) actually lost, facing a candidate (Clinton) who trounced him among black voters.

So I think fundraising in particular might understate the potential support for a candidate who has strong appeal to, say, white voters who don’t have as much money or affinity for giving to candidates (maybe former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren) or to nonwhite voters (perhaps former Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden or others).

All that said, campaigns need money, and O’Rourke and Sanders are off to a great start. I’m sure the other candidates are envious of these fundraising totals. And perhaps most importantly, having this much money this early gives O’Rourke and Sanders the ability to spend it on ads and field operations to turn their base of early supporters into a broader, more diverse coalition of Democrats. So pay attention to the fundraising numbers — just keep their limitations in mind.

CORRECTION (March 25, 2019, 2 p.m.): A previous version of this article inaccurately described ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke’s number of donors on the first day of his presidential campaign. The campaign announced that it had more than 128,000 “unique contributions,” not donors. It has since said it had 112,000 individual donors.

From ABC News:

2020 Democratic field for presidential candidates grows over the weekend


  1. And we likely won’t for a long time, if ever. People who donate to campaigns are not required to give that kind of demographic information, so detailed data about donors usually comes not from the information released by the Federal Elections Commission but from researchers who are either contacting people and asking them demographic questions or using other data sets to determine that information.

  2. Pew did not have sufficient data to estimate donation rates among other racial groups.

  3. Republican donations were even more weighted toward white donors.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.