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Bernie Sanders got more small donations in Pa., N.J. than Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden combined

The release of donor info, for donations as small as $1, allows for an unprecedented look into the grassroots financial support of the Democrats running for president.

(Clockwise from top left:) Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former vice president Joe Biden have the highest number of small-dollar donors in Pennsylvania.
(Clockwise from top left:) Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former vice president Joe Biden have the highest number of small-dollar donors in Pennsylvania.Read moreStaff and AP File

A retired schoolteacher, Dorine Rader doesn’t have a lot of money to throw around. But she managed, in the first six months of the year, to send $3, $5, $10 a pop to seven Democrats running for president.

On Wednesday, when she heard that Julián Castro still didn’t have enough donors to qualify for the September debates, Rader, 69, of Collegeville, made him her eighth, sending $5.

“There’s so many people I’m interested in,” she said. “I want to hear more. I wanted to see my favorites all on the debates.”

Donors like Rader, giving anywhere from a buck to $200, are playing a role in presidential politics like never before, and newly disclosed information allows an unprecedented level of insight into small-dollar donations.

An analysis of the data in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (which rank eighth and ninth in small-dollar donations) shows that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has the largest and most loyal donor base. He’s trailed widely by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In Pennsylvania, former Vice President Joe Biden is third. In New Jersey, that position is held by home-state Sen. Cory Booker.

For Sanders and Warren, their standing in the two states mirrors their lead in small-dollar donors nationally. Biden and Booker do better in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively, than nationally — where most of their money comes from donors who give more than $200.

Among these politically engaged donors in the region, many appear not fully committed to one choice. About one in five gave money to multiple candidates. Warren receives the most from donors who give to multiple campaigns, suggesting broad appeal.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris are also popular both in donations and in how often they overlap with other candidates’ donor bases, the data show. And in New Jersey, Booker pulls cash from other candidates’ donors, particularly Biden contributors.

The donations, for the first six months of the year, were reported by campaigns and ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform, to the Federal Election Commission and compiled by the Center for Public Integrity. Federal law doesn’t require campaigns to report details about donations of $200 or less, so the disclosure by ActBlue, which handles the majority of small contributions to Democrats, allows a deeper look at those contributions than ever before.

Why small-dollar donations matter more than ever

This year, with more than two dozen candidates, the Democratic Party has ratcheted up requirements to qualify for debates. To make the stage in September, a candidate must receive 130,000 unique donations. That has candidates pleading with supporters for donations as low as $1. Several candidates also have pledged to refuse corporate money, requiring them to focus on small dollars to compete. (Plus, campaigns like to tout small-dollar support as evidence of grassroots interest.)

A majority of money raised by Warren and Sanders, and nearly half by Buttigieg, has come in small denominations.

“All of the evidence suggests that if a voter donates as little as a dollar to a candidate it increases their likelihood of voting for that candidate,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair (N.J.) State University in New Jersey. “Now, with the debates, candidates have a double incentive to solicit small donations.”

That appears to be working in a Democratic base already energized by Trump’s presidency. Data show donors are giving more frequently and earlier in this presidential race, on track to break previous election cycle records. ActBlue self-reported raising $420 million in the first half of 2019, nearly double what it had brought in at the same time during the midterms in 2018. The platform also makes it easier to donate.

Sanders’ many donors are extremely loyal

Sanders has nearly 46,000 donors in Pennsylvania and 20,000 in New Jersey, about 78% more than Warren and 89% more than Biden. That tracks with his base nationwide. While Sanders’ support has stagnated somewhat — he’s dropped from second to third place in some national polls — he is also the only Democrat nationally with more donations coming in than President Donald Trump.

And his campaign touts donations in the Pennsylvania counties of Erie, Luzerne, and Northampton as an indication that Sanders would be competitive in the general election. In those counties, which pivoted from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, Sanders received more contributions than the next four Democrats combined.

“We think Bernie has a particular appeal to Pennsylvania voters in every part of the state,” said Bill Neidhardt, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign.

Sanders’ donor base tends to be younger, less educated, and lower-earning compared with those who give to other Democrats, Neidhardt said: Nationally, 47% of Sanders’ donors are 18 to 39 and the average contribution is $15.

Sanders donors are also fiercely loyal. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 80% of his donors gave exclusively to him.

“I think you’re either in or out with Bernie Sanders,” said Chris Borick, pollster at Muhlenberg College. “And while there’s a solid cohort that are absolutely in, as signified by their donations, for others he doesn’t have the type of appeal [to be their] second or a third choice.”

Carmella Kernen, 79, of Hatboro, said the only candidate for the Democratic nomination to whom she wouldn’t give money is Sanders, calling him a sore loser who divided the party in 2016. She donated to Biden and Warren, and said several other candidates excite her.

“If I’m going to go old, I’m going to go Biden,” Kernen said. “I’d like to see a woman in there.… I also like Buttigieg, Cory Booker, they’re the people I love, but I’m voting against Bernie and against Donald Trump.”

Biden, the front-runner, whose campaign is based in Philadelphia, also has a loyal base in the region — 78% of his donors here gave only to him. His most common overlap in Pennsylvania is with Buttigieg, Harris, and Warren donors.

Warren’s consensus campaign?

Of the 84,100 or so small donors in Pennsylvania and 68,500 in New Jersey, 18% gave to more than one candidate. Among those, 41% sent money to Warren, the most of any candidate.

Warren polls in second or third place but ranks first in most polls in which voters are asked to name their second-choice candidate.

Second place isn’t a bad place to be at this stage of the race, said Marc Meredith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Warren’s donations from people who also give to other candidates could show a consensus building around her.

“There’s a lot of people who are still shopping the field right now, and I think Warren has quite high favorability, generally,” Meredith said. “It doesn’t surprise me.… Warren would be in the group they’re shopping for.”

Abraham Verghese certainly believes it. He wanted Warren to run in 2016 and is excited about her candidacy: “She’s a brainiac — she’s brilliant — and I think she has a really clear message: big infrastructure change.”

Verghese, 66, of Newtown Square, also gave to Harris, his second-favorite.

“Her mother and my wife come from the same town back in India,” he said. “It’s personal.”

Where candidates are from has an impact. Booker had more individual donors than Biden in New Jersey, and did better in his home state than in Pennsylvania. (Biden also does particularly well in Pennsylvania, where he has deep roots, and in his home state, Delaware.)

People donate for different reasons, Borick said.

“They have a connection, they love to see the person compete and be there,” Borick said. “But they’re realistic, it probably won’t happen, so they divide their resources.”

Donors also appear to respond to policy announcements.

The day Warren announced her student debt cancellation plan, her donations increased; Sanders saw a spike after he released an education plan; Booker received a boost the day he told voters about a proposed tax credit for renters.

Candidates across the board cashed in following the June and July debates, regardless of how well pundits said they had done.

Gerard McAloon, 64, of Lansdowne, gave to Biden, Warren, and Harris, who he admits don’t line up in terms of ideology. “My primary driver or motivator is that I want a strong Democratic candidate, and I definitely want to see Trump defeated,” McAloon said. “If there’s a logic to it, that’s the logic.”

McAloon said he plans to continue hedging his bets.

“There are no perfect politicians,” he said. “There are no perfect people.”