Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during an event hosted by the Center for American Progress and the America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in Washington, March 23, 2015.
Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Clinton hopes to tap small-donor network that beat her in 2008


In another break from her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton plans to focus far greater attention on energizing the grassroots base and raising money for her anticipated 2016 presidential run through small contributions.

Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting absorbed much of the staff of Ready for Hillary, the pro-Clinton super PAC that has organized supporters across the country for two years, and is investing in the kind of digital outreach pioneered by Barack Obama when he beat Clinton in 2008.

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The additions include the group’s co-founder, Adam Parkhomenko, who is expected to hold the title of director of grassroots engagement. Grassroots fundraising director Neisha Blandin and deputy finance director Alex Smith will also join Clinton’s official fundraising operation, The New York Times first reported this week.

“Hires like that are critical because there is a recognition of how critical grassroots fundraising is — more than ever,” said source familiar with discussions inside Clinton’s nascent operation.

“The thing about max-out donors is that they max out. You need low-dollar donors to sustain.”
Former Hillary Clinton campaign aide

Ready for Hillary has held dozens of low-dollar fundraisers, often asking for its trademark $20.16 contributions, and has identified organizers in more 100 cities across the country who have helped the super PAC and would be eager to help Clinton. It’s a well-oiled low-dollar machine that could prove invaluable to Clinton’s campaign.

At the same time, Clinton has hired former Obama 2012 digital director Teddy Goff as her top digital strategist, along with a slew of other operatives who have expertise in targeting and online fundraising.

Clinton’s last presidential campaign was marked by a centralized campaign structure that turned off some activists and did not prioritize grassroots donations. The dependence on large donors became a serious problem when the Democratic primary dragged on longer than expected and Clinton ran out of money as her donors hit federal contribution limits.

“There was a mentality that we could count on double-max donors and be fine,” said one former campaign aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “But the thing about max-out donors is that they max out. You need low-dollar donors to sustain, and you need to communicate that need to your grassroots and empower regular people who believe in your candidate but only have $10 to spare.”

As a relatively inexperienced candidate, Obama was able to topple the vaunted Clinton machine by mobilizing an army of small-dollar donors, who chipped in just $5 or $10 at a time. In the first six months of the campaign in 2007, Obama had raised more than four times as much as Clinton from donations of $200 or less, and they made up nearly three times the share of his total haul.

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When the candidates needed more money, many of Clinton’s donors were already tapped out, while Obama had millions of small-dollar contributors he could turn to again and again.

Eventually, as her coffers ran dry, Clinton began emphasizing her campaign’s website during stump speeches and asking grassroots supporters to contribute — but it was too little too late.

Clinton was reportedly furious with her advisers for missing the importance of small-time donors in 2008. After a ritzy fundraiser in the Hamptons, Clinton chewed out her fundraising chief in front of one of her biggest donors, demanding to know why she didn’t have merchandise like Obama or his grassroots fundraising organization, according to the book “Game Change,” by journalist Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

If Clinton ran a campaign in 2008, Obama ran a movement — something she seems to be trying to do this time around.
This time around, Clinton is planning to do things differently, said Nick Merrill, Clinton’s spokesperson. “Make no mistake, she will take nothing for granted, and she will fight for every vote,” he said.

In an age of super PACs and billion-dollar-campaigns, Clinton will still need to depend on larger donations for the majority of her fundraising.

During his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama raised more money from small donors than any candidate in history, but they still accounted for only 43% of his total haul. Mitt Romney raised only 23% of his money from small donors.

Ready for Hillary capped their donations at $25,000 to avoid sucking up money from other Democratic super PACs, but sought to appeal to both large and small donors with low- and high-dollar events on the same night in the same city, featuring the same big name surrogates.

But in addition to a valuable financial source, small donors are an important messaging tool and a way to give supporters a sense of ownership over a campaign, say Kim Alfred, who lead grassroots fundraising efforts for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “It was a huge way for us to show the groundswell of support” for Obama, she said. “It was about really, truly about creating a sense of a movement.”

If Clinton ran a campaign in 2008, Obama ran a movement — something she seems to be trying to do this time around. “You feel there is a movement stirring across this county, you can see it from coast to coast,” she said on the campaign trail in Philadelphia in October. She would return to that cryptic “movement” several more times on the trail.

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Candidates often tout their small contributions in speeches and marketing materials to show they’re representing average people. “While the other side leans on corporate donors and million-dollar checks, we’re doing this the right way,” Obama told supporters in the final month of the 2012 in a plea for a $5 donation.  

Online fundraising has become both an art and a science, with reams of data and A/B message testing coupled with the creativity of successful email solicitation writers, some of whom became famous in digital political circles for their ability to churn out high-performing emails.

Despite her pick of talent, Clinton will start at somewhat of a disadvantage here, since she does not have an up-to-date email fundraising list, like Obama did in 2012. She will likely absorb Ready for Hillary’s list of about 4 million names, but will have to start from scratch on Facebook and and other social media platforms outside Twitter.

But the early hiring of the super PAC’s grassroots staff suggests Clinton wants to send a message to Democrats that she’s eager for donations — even if it’s $5 at a time.