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Trump campaign invests big in small donors, and reaps rewards

President Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11th, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
July 16, 2019 09:19 am

WASHINGTON — Democrats have traditionally trounced Republicans when it comes to raising money from small donors, but President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign is spending heavily to try to change that.

As they prepare for a reelection fight in which grassroots Democratic fundraisers are expected to be particularly energized to defeat the president, Trump’s three campaign committees have spent a combined $7.9 million on digital advertising, direct mail and telemarketing — techniques used to target and cultivate low-dollar donors — over the past three months, according to campaign finance reports filed Monday evening with the Federal Election Commission.

That was an increase in spending in those categories over the preceding quarter, and it brought the total spent on small-donor prospecting techniques by Trump’s operation to more than $39 million over the past 2 1/2 years, putting it on pace to eclipse the $110 million it spent on those things during the 2016 presidential campaign.

At the same time, Trump has worked more assiduously to cultivate major Republican donors of the sort he disparaged his rivals for courting during his first campaign. Monday’s reports revealed six-figure donations from allies, including regulars at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, Mar-a-Lago, and the mother of the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman.

The reports highlighted how Trump’s reelection campaign differs from his first run for office, when the rookie candidate, who sold himself as a self-made billionaire, initially pledged to self-fund his campaign and paid little attention to its infrastructure.

While Trump eventually began raising money from outside donors of all sizes, he was significantly outraised by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, raised $585.7 million, compared with $350.7 million brought in by his campaign, which included $66 million of his own money.

This time, Trump’s team has not spent any of his money, and his campaign has worked hand-in-hand with the Republican National Committee since shortly after he was elected to continue cultivating a small-donor base that has been more fervent than those of past Republican candidates.

The efforts have yielded results.

Of the $68 million raised in the second quarter of the year by Trump’s campaign and two joint committees it formed with the national committee — Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again Committee — 35% came from small donors, defined as those who gave $200 or less. That is a significant increase over the first three months of the year, both in total fundraising and in the proportion of funds from small donors.

Trump’s three committees ended last month with a combined total of $80 million in the bank, giving his operation a huge lead — in terms of money on hand and in campaign infrastructure assembled — over all of his prospective Democratic rivals.

For comparison, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whose $25 million fundraising haul was the largest of any 2020 Democratic presidential candidate in the second quarter, finished last month with $23 million in the bank. Neither Buttigieg nor any of the other Democratic candidates have had the benefit of raising money into joint committees with the Democratic National Committee, which would enable them to accept larger donations of the sort revealed in Trump’s filings.

Trump Victory, the joint committee that can accept the largest donations, raised $20 million from 200 donors who gave $50,000 or more.

Of that group, 12 individuals, many with close ties to Trump and his team, gave the maximum contribution of $360,000.

They included Trump’s ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, and his wife, Suzanne Johnson. The former wrestling executive Linda E. McMahon, who resigned in March as the head of the Small Business Administration to head a pro-Trump “super PAC,” also gave the maximum.

Also doling out $360,000 was Marlene Ricketts, the mother of the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman, Todd Ricketts. Ricketts’ husband founded the brokerage TD Ameritrade. Isaac Perlmutter, a longtime friend of Trump’s and a member of Mar-a-Lago, also donated the maximum. Perlmutter has played an outsize role in shaping the Trump administration’s policymaking at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The committee also accepted a $360,000 donation from the Manhattan real estate executive Stephen Rosenberg, who had given to Clinton’s campaign, and who seemed to express a low opinion of Trump as recently as January.

Asked by a real estate publication what he would say if he could sit down with the president, Rosenberg responded, “I would say, ‘Really?’ “

The Trump campaign said it did not know whether Rosenberg had met with Trump.

Trump Victory spent nearly $130,000 at Mar-a-Lago, where in March the president attended a fundraiser for major donors.

His operation also spent heavily on merchandise often offered for sale as a way to entice small donors to give, including spending $744,000 on hats.

Much of the Trump operation’s online advertising was done by an in-house firm called American Made Media Consultants, which was created by the campaign to buy digital, radio and television advertising, including online fund-raising solicitations. It was paid nearly $2.2 million in the second quarter, according to the filings.

Another expenditure was for polling conducted this year, which Trump officials say was for extensive message testing, marking the first significant polling spending by Trump’s reelection campaign. Five firms were paid a total of roughly $1.1 million. Only two of the firms — Fabrizio, Lee & Associates and McLaughlin & Associates — are being retained going forward.

Parscale Strategy, the firm of Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, received more than $1 million from the campaign and its joint committees for consulting, video production, photography and web development, according to the filings.

The spending by the Trump committees in the second quarter also included $1.5 million on legal fees, most of which went to the firm Jones Day, to which the former White House counsel Don McGahn has returned since leaving his government post.

Also receiving payments as a vendor to the campaign is the credit card-processing company Stripe, which counts among its investors Josh Kushner, the brother of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser who helps oversee the campaign. Stripe received more than $1 million from the three Trump committees.

The campaign is likely to stop using Stripe to process credit card payments because Republicans created an online platform called WinRed to solicit small-dollar donations, an official said.