Bernie Sanders raises contender-level money in first months on the trail

Bernie Sanders had a good week this week.

On Wednesday, Sanders addressed nearly ten thousand supporters in Madison in what was the biggest rally any candidate has held so far this cycle. Then, to follow that up, he released his first quarterly fundraising report since announcing his candidacy two months ago. The toplines:

  • 400,000 contributions
  • 250,000 individual donors
  • $15 million raised
  • $33 average contribution

According to the Sanders campaign, 99 percent of donations were less than $250, accounting for 87 percent of his total fundraising haul.

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

Bernie Sanders speaking at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, via John Pemble / Flickr

Those numbers put Sanders closer to Hillary Clinton financially than many expected. Clinton’s campaign told CNN that it has raised $45 million in the last three months — a record for any campaign’s first quarter of fundraising. Her campaign has said that 91 percent of its donations have been less than $100, but has not disclosed its number of overall donors.

There are a number of reasons for Sanders’s fundraising success. A MarketingLand analysis found that Sanders is sending the highest-engaging fundraising emails of any candidate, which speaks to both his campaign’s competence and his supporters’ enthusiasm. Sanders’s digital staff includes multiple veterans of President Obama’s 2008 campaign; it knows how to leverage the Internet to get a lot of people to give a little bit of money. But it’s a lot easier to raise money when you’ve got a candidate who small-money donors feel is worth investing in.

Sanders’ growing momentum has led Clinton’s network to start field-testing plans of attack against Sanders. Last week, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill compared Sanders — and his massive crowds — to Ron Paul, saying on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that “It’s not unusual for someone who has an extreme message to have a following.”

As political attacks go, that was pretty weak. From Matthew Pulver at Salon:

Is this the best the Clinton team has right now? McCaskill endorsed Clinton for president more than two years ago, way back in 2013, but she apparently didn’t spend a whole lot of that time working on her potential talking points. It feels a little embarrassing as a tactic. Its fallacious, clumsy logic seems more suited for the YouTube comments section: You know who else got big crowds? Hitler.

Setting aside for the moment that McCaskill’s argument boils down to popularity being a bad thing in presidential politics, it’s simply incorrect to say that Bernie Sanders’s views are extreme by today’s political standards. In the last Congress, fourteen Republican senators were more conservative than Sanders was liberal, with Sanders’s ideological “extremism” being most comparable to David Vitter, not Rand or Ron Paul. To be clear, if David Vitter ran for president he wouldn’t be taken seriously, but it wouldn’t be because his politics are considered two standard deviations away from the mean. They aren’t. It would be because Vitter is best-known for canoodling with women who are not his wife, and paying for the experience.

Sooner or later, Bernie Sanders is going to raise enough money and climb high enough in the polls to be covered like the candidate he is: an up-and-coming insurgent within striking distance of the frontrunner in early primary states. The more momentum he picks up, and the more Hillary Clinton feels compelled to attack him, the more this race will feel like 2008:

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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