Donald J. Trump is, we’ve all heard, fabulously wealthy. As a candidate, his riches confer independence. If he ends up the Republican nominee, he certainly has the ability to self-fund his White House campaign without building a base of donors, whether big or small-dollar. But could this financial freedom actually hurt him?
His zealous followers are, in fact, flocking to his website to give him “unsolicited contributions.” But he doesn't really need their donations and doesn’t have a visible strategy in place to actively solicit more money, if it was needed.
That’s the downside to Trump’s wealth. The imperative to raise money online forces campaigns to build infrastructure that has a strategic value beyond the immediate cash-on-hand. The people and technology behind a presidential-level fundraising program help win elections in other ways. A good email team, for example, keeps supporters engaged and involved, primed to volunteer, vote or caucus. It also tells them when and how to do it.
Online engagement also yields data in the form of responses to messages and fundraising appeals. This information helps the campaign in ways ranging from identifying potential grassroots leaders to understanding the themes that resonate with the base. Moreover, someone who's donated is invested, quite literally, in the campaign’s success.
As a result, donors are more apt to actually vote. All of these factors are amplified in caucus states where determination and organization win — just ask the folks who orchestrated President Obama's successful 2008 caucus strategy.
The irony is that Trump hasn't needed even his own money yet. That’s partly because cable news and online outlets have showered him with so much attention that he hasn't had to spend big to get his message out. But this short-term advantage may turn out to have long-term consequences if a lack of infrastructure lets better-organized opponents beat him when polls say they shouldn't. It won’t be long before Iowa’s results reveal whether Trump’s padded bank account proved to be a drag on the businessman’s campaign.
Bernie's Small Donors: Krytponite Against Clinton Attacks
Not surprisingly, other campaigns have taken a very different approach to fundraising in 2016. On the right, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have both built sizable small-donor lists. But Democrat Bernie Sanders really stands out when it comes to enthusiastic online support. And as Hillary Clinton has found in recent weeks, his digital fans may be changing the equation involved in going negative.
After avoiding direct confrontation with her more-liberal rival for most of last year, tightening poll numbers pushed Clinton to hit Sanders over his gun policies and desire to reopen the healthcare debate. His supporters weren't pleased, to put it mildly.
Now, it being the digital age, they could do something about it. In fact, they gave him over a million dollars immediately, with much more coming in the following days.
Sanders already had enough cash in the bank to fund big TV buys in Iowa, an unusual situation for a so-called insurgent candidate. Passion for Sanders on the left guarantees that he won't run short of funds any time soon, particularly since small-dollar donors don't max out. As more campaigns learn to harness this kind of enthusiasm, will opponents find that the financial blowback makes going negative a dicier proposition?
‘The Smart Ones Know They Should Text Me’
That's what the political director at a well-known organization generous to Democrats said to me recently. The topic was on members of Congress dialing for dollars, and she was talking about the tragically large number of voicemails a particular gentleman had left on her work number and subsequently her cell. Had he been replaced by a calling robot? No, just following instructions to the letter, when the better way to reach her was actually an occasional text. A relationship-builder, not begging, attuned to how people connect in the now.
This isn't just a story about technology, though. Her organization has supported the member in question for years, so he shouldn't spend the time composing annoying voicemails for her at all. It’s an example of time-management malpractice as he could spend those precious minutes pestering other people for donations.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.