WASHINGTON — In 2012, B. Rowe Winecoff, a retired social worker from Newton, Iowa, contributed $120 to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. But he has yet to give any money to Hillary Clinton in this election. “This year just seems dirtier than ever,” said Winecoff, a Democrat, explaining why he has not contributed to the candidate he intends to vote for.
Even as newly released financial disclosures reveal that Clinton enjoys a substantial fundraising advantage over Donald Trump, she is struggling to replicate the sort of small-dollar juggernaut that Obama enjoyed in his campaigns and Sen. Bernie Sanders relied on in this year’s Democratic primaries.
In an illustration of the lack of enthusiasm for her among some liberal activists, just 24 percent of the contributions to Clinton’s campaign so far have been $200 or less. In 2012, 43 percent of the money to Obama was from contributors who gave $200 or less, and this year 58 percent of the giving to Sanders’ grass-roots bid came from small-dollar donors.
Without this online network, Clinton is being made to continue with an aggressive calendar of fundraisers with rich donors as Election Day grows near — events that can limit her time in swing states and reinforce concerns that give rank-and-file Democrats pause.
“Hillary has been at so many fundraisers and off the campaign trail,” said Winecoff, bringing up her schedule without prompting. “And a lot of money is coming from special interests, so we’re concerned about what that’s going to mean.”
Since Labor Day, the traditional start of general election campaigns, Clinton has appeared at nine fundraisers while attending five public events in swing states. And that does not include the multiple money events she was set to attend in California, but instead sent Bill Clinton to after she came down with pneumonia.
Clinton has tried to meld her need to raise money for advertisements and voter-turnout efforts with her retail campaign. But it can be a stretch. After addressing college students at Temple University this week, for example, she attended a fundraiser hosted by David L. Cohen, a Comcast executive and Philadelphia Democratic powerhouse, that brought in roughly $3 million. Trying to keep with the day’s theme, college students and young Comcast employees were also invited, to interact with Clinton in the kind of rarefied small setting typically reserved for wealthy contributors.
“What Bernie did in the primary was truly incredible, but we’re very happy with the state of our grass-roots fundraising,” said Josh Scherwin, a spokesman for Clinton, adding that “September is shaping up to be our best month for online fundraising.”
But the campaign’s traditional approach to raising money is maddening to many Democrats, particularly liberals who have witnessed the evolution of online fundraising and are baffled at why Clinton is so committed to an approach they see as nearly as dated as torchlight parades.
“It boggles my mind that the Clinton campaign didn’t learn their lessons from 2012 or even earlier this year, and haven’t moved toward a more open and public campaign, one that constantly has her in front of real people instead of rich people,” said Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the blog Daily Kos.
He continued: “Sanders certainly proved that if you focus all of your energy on the voting public, that core supporters will reward that love with real money. Instead, Clinton’s campaign still seems stuck on the old model of never-ending high-dollar fundraisers. As a result, she looks secluded and out of reach, further reinforcing the notion that she cares more about the wealthy than regular folks.”
This close to the election, though, Clinton may not have much of a choice. Given Democratic fears of Trump and her advantage in the race, there is an intense demand for her in the ranks of major Democratic givers.
“Just trying to find a date has been a challenge,” said James Hodges, a former South Carolina governor who has been trying to organize an event for Clinton before the election. Further, the very fundraising model she is depending on demands a continued stream of events with contribution levels that begin at five figures and often run higher. It is an approach that she and Bill Clinton are well acquainted with, dating to the 1990s when raising soft money for the national parties was legal.
They have enduring relationships with donors in all 50 states going back to those days. So unlike in the campaigns of Obama and Sanders, who began as insurgents, necessity has not demanded that Hillary Clinton raise money any other way. (Obama ultimately fashioned a network that relied on both modest givers and the wealthy.)
“She’s invested heavily in the infrastructure of human beings: finance directors across the country, photo lines and donor-circle membership,” said Scott Goodstein, the founder of Revolution Messaging, an online Democratic fundraising firm. “Now they’ve got to play that out. She, unfortunately, made that commitment to do those five house parties or what have you in New York and now she has to stand on that because her bundler network needs it.”
Goodstein, whose firm ran Sanders’ online fundraising effort, added that “the mistake that I think they made was not reaching deeper, building deeper infrastructure and a deeper coalition.”
Instead, she is relying on the sort of access-oriented fundraising that is a staple of Washington. And she is not the only one making herself available to major contributors who want to influence policy. This month, for example, Michele Flournoy, who is seen as a favorite to be Clinton’s defense secretary, headlined a fundraiser in defense-industry-rich Northern Virginiawhere the top contribution requested was $5,000.
Clinton’s low-dollar fundraising has picked up in recent months, and over half of the total money she raised last month came through online contributions, according to a campaign aide.
And with polls tightening, Democrats expect Clinton’s online success to pick up. “Urgency really drives action,” said Mitch Stewart, a veteran of Obama’s campaigns.
It is Trump who is drawing more from modest givers as a percentage of his total contributions<strong>.</strong> Sixty-one percent of his donations through the end of July were in amounts of $200 or less, a figure that is partly explained by the resistance to his candidacy from wealthy Republican contributors.
Yet many in Clinton’s own party believe she could have done far better had she made Democratic activists feel as invested as the party’s elites.
“The campaigns with the most effective networks of small-dollar donors are the campaigns where small-dollar donors feel their donations matter,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, a SiriusXM radio host who has worked on online fundraising campaigns for Democrats.