How Biden Became the Unlikeliest of Online Fund-Raising Superstars

Four inflection points transformed Mr. Biden from a pauper during the primaries to a powerhouse against President Trump.

Long before Joseph R. Biden Jr. was smashing online fund-raising records, long before it was clear he would become the Democratic nominee, his campaign was facing a serious cash crisis.

It was late summer 2019 and Mr. Biden’s online fund-raising had slowed to such a trickle that his team basically had to shut down its digital advertising program. His aides knew the choice was self-defeating: No more online ads meant no more finding new donors. The campaign bottomed out in early September 2019 when Mr. Biden raised just $24,124.17 online in a day.

Now? On one recent day, Mr. Biden was raising more than that every two minutes.

The unlikely transformation of Mr. Biden, a 77-year-old whose seemingly limited appeal to small donors left him financially outflanked in the primaries, into perhaps the greatest magnet for online money in American political history is a testament to the ferocity of Democratic opposition to President Trump.

In a little over a year, the former vice president’s online fund-raising had increased 1,000-fold, to $24.1 million on Sept. 30.

Mr. Biden now has a once-unimaginable cash edge over Mr. Trump, and since Sept. 1 he has reserved about $140 million more in television advertising than the president. Money alone does not determine presidential winners — Hillary Clinton vastly outspent Mr. Trump in 2016 — but the cash has provided Mr. Biden enviable flexibility to engineer the electoral map to his advantage.

“There was always going to be a large amount of money coming into the nominee,” said Michael Whitney, a Democratic digital fund-raising specialist who worked for Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary. “I’m sure they never dreamed it would be this big.”

To chart Mr. Biden’s consequential financial turnabout, The New York Times analyzed the flow of nearly 11 million online contributions from the first nearly 500 days of his campaign. The analysis looked at $436 million given through August to Mr. Biden and his shared committee with the Democratic National Committee via ActBlue, the donation-processing platform. Checks, merchandise sales and other offline giving were not included.

The Times analysis shows four inflection points in Mr. Biden’s fund-raising metamorphosis, beginning with one unwittingly provided last fall by Mr. Trump, whose presidency has been rocket fuel for Democratic fund-raising.

The other three points — all linked in different ways to race — emerge from the 2020 data: Mr. Biden’s sweeping victories delivered by Black voters in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, the protests following the police killing of George Floyd and, especially, the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Ms. Harris, in particular, turbocharged his fund-raising. Mr. Biden’s previous high for online donations in a day had been 102,143 contributions. On Aug. 11, the day he picked Ms. Harris, he received 252,982. The day after, he topped 300,000.

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Mr. Biden’s committees raised a record-shattering $364.5 million in August, including $205 million online. Then he bested that total in September, officials said.

Teddy Goff, a top digital strategist for Mrs. Clinton in 2016 and President Barack Obama in 2012, called those sums “shocking amounts.”

“It wasn’t at all clear that a candidate who didn’t spend the last decade building an email fund-raising list, and who isn’t associated with the movement wing of the party, would have such flabbergasting success,” he said.

This is how it happened.

The first event that reversed Mr. Biden’s financial trajectory came not long after he had scrapped his ad budget: the September 2019 news that Mr. Trump had pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden’s son. That act eventually spurred the president’s impeachment. For many Democratic primary voters, it also was a blunt reminder of Mr. Biden’s polling strength against Mr. Trump.

In the 40 days before the call burst into view, on Sept. 20, 2019, Mr. Biden had raised about $62,500 online per day, on average; in the 40 days that followed, he averaged over $159,000.

It was something of a financial lifeboat. Over the previous three months, Mr. Biden had been spending more than he raised, depleting his cash reserves. The extra $100,000 a day helped keep the campaign afloat, officials said.

Kate Bedingfield, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Biden, said that Mr. Trump’s seeking help from Ukraine “made it clear to the whole world which candidate he feared facing most.”

“And we capitalized on that in a way that produced real results,” she said.

Mr. Biden’s average daily haul would never again dip below the six-figure mark.

Still, Mr. Biden mostly plodded along financially the rest of the pre-primary season. He averaged raising $169,059 per day online last October, $136,518 in November, $128,912 in December and $168,674 in January.

In other words, there was no growth.

At the same time, donations to his rivals ballooned. By late February, Mr. Biden was teetering politically and had spent only the sixth most of the Democratic field.

Then came South Carolina.

With Mr. Sanders threatening to seize control of the primary, Black voters gave Mr. Biden a decisive victory — and online money rained down: more than $5 million on Feb. 29 and $5 million the next day. Days later, Mr. Biden swept through Super Tuesday to amass a delegate lead he would never relinquish.

Mr. Biden would raise $25.3 million online over seven days — more than he had in the previous four months.

Just as significant, Mr. Biden’s fund-raising floor was suddenly and permanently higher — even as the coronavirus pandemic soon froze American life. He averaged about $615,000 per day until Mr. Sanders dropped out in early April; the rest of that month, Mr. Biden’s daily average jumped to $1.1 million.

Mr. Biden’s email and text lists were still excruciatingly small for a presumptive nominee. “A lot of people were pessimistic about the Biden campaign’s ability to ramp up their digital campaign because they were not as sophisticated in the primary as other candidates,” said Tara McGowan, a Democratic digital strategist.

Mr. Biden’s new campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, rushed to make up ground. She cast aside a proposal to outsource much of the digital operations to a firm, Hawkfish, created by the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, and instead went on a hiring and spending spree. Almost 40 percent of Mr. Biden’s April outlays — $4.7 million of $12 million — went into ads seeking new supporters online, according to federal records and campaigns officials.

The investments were approved even as the economy cratered, other campaign departments clamored to expand and the payoff seemed uncertain.

“People were nervous and scared,” said Rob Flaherty, the campaign’s digital director. “Politics was a secondary thing.”

Donations stagnated at first despite the spending, and even regressed. In the first weeks of May, Mr. Biden’s daily online haul had dipped below $775,000, despite nearly a third of the campaign’s total budget going into donor prospecting.

In the first weeks of May, the Biden campaign was regularly at risk of missing internal digital fund-raising goals, according to an official familiar with the matter, and often needed external boosts to help hit its metrics.

Then came the video of Mr. Floyd’s death that set off nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Millions of dollars spontaneously flooded into racial justice groups and Black-led organizations — and also Mr. Biden’s coffers. On May 27, Mr. Biden raised $1.3 million, starting his first-ever two-week stretch of days above $1 million.

On June 2, Mr. Biden delivered his first speech outside his home since the pandemic froze campaign activities, speaking in Philadelphia on race relations the day after the Trump administration had used smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray to clear peaceful protesters outside the White House for a photo op. More than $3.2 million poured in — Mr. Biden’s biggest day since the week of Super Tuesday.

Hate-giving is a well-known phenomenon for Democratic donors in the Trump era, and Mr. Biden becoming the vessel to take down Mr. Trump has been a financial boon.

“Joe Biden showed up and he was the counter-president in that moment,” said Caitlin Mitchell, a former top D.N.C. official who joined the Biden campaign as a senior digital strategist in May.

The Biden campaign began furiously spending to capture the newfound energy, directing as much money into Facebook ads in the first days of June as it had in its first 10 months.

From March 1 to July 1, the campaign’s email list quintupled. The Floyd-inspired protests were a clear turning point, with 2.6 million added in June alone. Mr. Biden had averaged raising $795,000 per day in the preceding 75 days; that figured doubled to $1.65 million over the following 75 days.

Mr. Biden’s choice for his running mate was a closely guarded secret by the campaign’s inner sanctum leading up to Ms. Harris’s August unveiling. A special Slack channel was set up, with a slowly expanding list of people invited on a need-to-know basis, hour by hour. The goal was to break the news via text message.

But a minute before the text went out, the Biden-Harris campaign website accidentally went live, according to campaign officials, although the mix-up went undetected.

The rush of money that followed was staggering.

The selection of Ms. Harris proved so popular, so quickly, that the campaign opened a new fulfillment center just for yard signs. More than $48 million flooded into the campaign in those heady first 48 hours, roughly 80 percent from online; by the end of the month, all 14 of Mr. Biden’s biggest days for online fund-raising had come after forming the Biden-Harris ticket.

“This level is not inevitable,” said Mr. Whitney, the former Sanders strategist, who credited an investment in staff and digital infrastructure. “They have done very well to reach the maximum.”

A Biden campaign that once had only five aides dedicated to online fund-raising now counts 45, including those integrated with the D.N.C.

In one notable move, the Biden campaign sent news of Ms. Harris’s selection to the full dormant list of the D.N.C., something campaigns are generally averse to doing out of fear of tripping spam filters, and again after her convention speech. Those two emails, campaign officials said, reactivated 875,000 supporters.

The Biden campaign raised an average of $8.1 million a day online in the last three weeks of August, following Ms. Harris’s selection and during the two national conventions. That is $2.5 million more than its previous biggest day.

“In digital, our job is to make windmills,” said Mr. Flaherty, the digital director. “The candidate has to make the wind.”

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