Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez is setting a kind of cover charge to get onstage for the Democratic presidential primary debates, but not just any money will do. In addition to the usual polling metrics required to join the debate, candidates will also have to meet a to-be-determined criteria for “grassroots fundraising.”
Including small-dollar fundraising as a necessary element for debate participation would have two effects. First, it incentivizes candidates to invest — strategically, financially, and emotionally — in growing a small-donor base. Second, it will force potential billionaire self-funders like Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Howard Schultz to demonstrate some level of popular enthusiasm for their campaigns, meaning they can’t just flash their own cash and buy their way onstage.
This is a remarkable decision for any political party, and it reflects a growing shift in how campaigns are run and won. It also previews what will be an important way to measure the success of candidates in the Democratic primary: not just looking at how much money candidates raise, but how much of their money comes from small-dollar donors.
The rise of small-dollar contributions in the 2018 election cycle shows a growing appetite for the Democratic base to fund campaigns on its own — and a potential distaste for traditional Democratic power brokers (and their money) determining the winners of primaries. That spells trouble for candidates who might rely on big money or self-funding for their campaigns, and especially for those who will tolerate outside Super PACs supporting their candidacy.
The DNC Needs to Define “Grassroots Fundraising”
A word of caution before getting too excited about the idea of “grassroots fundraising” being a new standard for whether Democratic Party sanctions candidates: The only way it will be a meaningful metric is if the party defines it as how much of a candidate’s money comes from people donating $200 or less, which is the federal definition of an “unitemized,” or small-dollar, contribution. This dividing line is a useful way to understand the amount of money a candidate can raise from people who don’t necessarily have $200 of disposable income for political contributions, but who still feel compelled to donate.