Ed Rendell knows Democratic fundraising events, which he has helped stage in Philadelphia for about three decades. He hit a milestone Wednesday night with what he believes might have been the biggest — and no one was even in the same room.
A Zoom call organized by Rendell and Philadelphia backers of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign raised more than $1.6 million. The former Pennsylvania governor said the virtual event, after accounting for inflation, likely topped even his lavish 1996 dinner for the Democratic National Committee headlined by President Bill Clinton at City Hall.
“It’s extraordinarily impressive," Rendell said. "People want to give right now.”
That’s an important sign for Biden as he heads toward the general election trailing Trump and the Republican National Committee in cash by a 2-1 ratio.
But in the last few months, Biden has raked in donations at a faster rate than expected given an economy in recession, people out of work, protests against police violence, and the coronavirus pandemic. Fundraising events where donors get a handshake and a photo are out, and yet Democrats gave almost as much to the campaign in April as in March.
Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised $60 million in April, including $8.5 million in the week that former President Barack Obama and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders endorsed the campaign. Totals for May aren’t yet available, though Act Blue reported that Biden on May 27 set single-day and single-hour records for donations. Last week, a fund-raiser hosted by billionaire Tom Steyer brought in $4 million for the Biden campaign and the DNC. A second event featuring Sen. Kamala Harris in California raised about $3.5 million.
Trump and the RNC raised $61.5 million in April, and the campaign has said it has $255 million in the bank.
“Despite the challenges of a virtual nationwide lockdown during the pandemic, the Trump Victory Finance Committee organized over 40 virtual fund-raisers and added over 2,500 new volunteer bundlers, showcasing the tremendous support this president has,” said Sergio Gor, chief of staff to the committee, which funds complementary operations of the campaign and state parties.
Biden, whose campaign is based in Philadelphia, has long benefited from the super-fundraisers known as bundlers in the region. Philly-hosted virtual events in the last two months have raised close to $3 million.
On Wednesday, 430 people joined the Zoom call, each giving between $500 and $50,000. They heard from Biden, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Rendell. They were also treated to performances by James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma. The event raised money for the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee.
Fundraisers attribute an uptick in donations to polls that show wavering support for Trump’s handling of the pandemic and protests over the death of George Floyd.
“Givers are always inspired to give more when they think their candidate has a chance to win,” Rendell said before the event. “And Trump’s terrible performance during COVID and during and in the aftermath of George Floyd.... It’s really excited people.”
On June 1, when authorities teargassed protesters near the White House to make way for Trump’s appearance at a nearby church, dozens of calls came in, said Kenneth Jarin, a partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm and one of the fundraisers who put on Wednesday’s event.
“Everyone was watching on TV, and we got calls from all over the place,” Jarin said. "People were saying, ‘We want to come in and we want to come in big.’ I hadn’t seen anything like that before.”
Then came Biden’s speech in Philadelphia, which also helped fuel donations.
Jarin, who was vice chair of finance for Rendell, Bill Clinton, and Wolf, said that in 2016, it was harder to persuade some people to give to Hillary Clinton.
“We were raising money, but it was a completely different conversation, it was a lot about how people felt about Hillary,” he said. "Now, there’s this strong, universally powerful feeling that people have about defeating Donald Trump that has really changed the dynamic.”
Jarin said he was surprised the bad economy hadn’t deterred giving.
“I want to tell you that this has been the easiest event I’ve ever had to ask people for money for," Rendell said on the fundraising video conference.
“It’s not that people haven’t been impacted,” said Mike Gerber, a former Democratic state representative who co-chaired the event. “It’s just despite these challenging economic times, they’re still wanting to be supportive.”
Virtual fundraising means no fancy meal or open bar, and no private handshake or one-on-one time with the candidate. But it also means the invitation list can extend across states, said Alan Kessler, another longtime Democratic fundraiser who co-chaired the event with Gerber and Jarin.
“You’re not giving people the photo with the candidate, you’re not even giving them the candidate in person,” Kessler said. But that’s balanced by people not having to travel to attend. Some high-dollar donors accustomed to a slew of events and fundraisers even prefer tuning in from home, he said.
At this point in a presidential campaign, money typically is needed to set up field offices and fund organizing. While that’s largely on hold, it’s likely to return. Biden is trying to hit the airwaves in the meantime. The campaign launched a one-minute ad this week featuring portions of Biden’s Philadelphia speech on racial justice, images of protesters, and a clip of Trump.
In brief remarks Wednesday night, Biden told donors he thought the last few weeks had been a “wake-up call for the nation.”
“This country is crying out for leadership and healing,” he said to the 430 Zoom boxes, speaking from his sun room in Wilmington. “It’s time to listen and respond with some action to turn this anger and anguish into purpose.”