Biden, With Sluggish Small Donations, Waits for Liberal Energy to Rise

When President Biden traveled to San Francisco last month, he raised more than $10 million in 36 hours from wealthy Democrats. Trips to Chicago and New York netted millions more, as did fund-raising events around Washington, proving that the party’s big-donor class is fully committed to Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign.

But the small-dollar online money spigot that helped Mr. Biden smash fund-raising records during his 2020 presidential campaign has not yet turned on, and there are ample signs that it may be months before it does.

The Biden campaign and the Biden Victory Fund, its joint fund-raising vehicle, collected $10.2 million from small donors — defined as those who gave $200 or less — during the three-month fund-raising period that ended June 30, according to a Federal Election Commission report filed Saturday. That figure is about half of the $21 million President Barack Obama’s campaign raised during the same period of his 2012 re-election effort.

Democrats involved with Mr. Biden’s campaign and the world of online fund-raising detailed a host of reasons for Mr. Biden’s relatively low small-dollar haul.

Google and Apple have made it harder for email senders to see data about who has opened solicitations. Inflation slowed political donations across the board. Donors are exhausted by the unending flow of emails asking for money, and recipients are responding to far fewer of them.

At the moment, Democrats aren’t quite as fired up as they were in 2018 and 2020, when Donald J. Trump’s presidency opened floodgates of liberal money, or ahead of the 2022 midterms, when the Capitol riot, the rise of the election-denial movement and the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade all motivated donors.

And Mr. Biden is not an insurgent candidate who is motivating students to put up posters of him on dorm-room walls, as Mr. Obama or Senator Bernie Sanders did in their campaigns. His low-key White House and bare-bones campaign haven’t yet motivated supporters to rage-donate to his campaign.

“Right now there’s there is no day-to-day competition combat going on,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul, whom Mr. Biden named a co-chairman of his campaign. “So these are the most loyal, most dedicated believers and supporters. It’ll build over time.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign highlighted an array of statistics to promote its grass-roots donor operation. Nearly a third of its 394,000 donors did not contribute to Mr. Biden in 2020, the campaign said.

Yet the president’s finance reports show that he is far more dependent on the wealthiest donors than Mr. Trump was in his re-election bid or Mr. Biden’s opponents were in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest.

Ten donors, including Mr. Katzenberg, Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and Stewart W. Bainum Jr., the Maryland hotel magnate, gave $500,000 or more to the Biden Victory Fund. Another 82 donors contributed $100,000 or more.

Four years ago, 35 percent of the money raised by Mr. Trump and the two joint committees his campaign formed with the national committee — Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again Committee — came from donors who gave $200 or less. For Mr. Biden, 21 percent of funds to his campaign and the joint finance committee came from small donors.

Small-dollar contributions are down across the political spectrum. An analysis conducted by Middle Seat, a digital fund-raising firm with an array of Democratic clients, found that small donors had given less money during the first fund-raising period of 2023 than they had in nearly four years — since early 2019.

“If I were on the Biden team right now, I’d be really happy with the numbers,” said Kenneth Pennington, a partner at Middle Seat. “It’s a terrible fund-raising environment, and he’s not launching a new campaign.”

While Mr. Biden’s total fund-raising was roughly on par with the Republican candidates, he outpaced them with small donors. Combined, the G.O.P. candidates raised $7.5 million from small donors to his $10.2 million.

The percentage of contributions of less than $200 is typically at its high point at the beginning of a campaign and drops as campaigns proceed, because when the amount an individual donor has given exceeds $200, it triggers a federal disclosure requirement.

When Mr. Biden began his 2020 campaign for president, 38 percent of the money his campaign raised during the comparable reporting period came from small donors.

Democratic online fund-raising experts said they expected the pace of online giving to the Biden campaign to pick up early next year, once voters begin to pay more attention to the Republican primary race and the nominee to oppose Mr. Biden emerges.

“Once Democratic donors become focused on the Republican primary and what’s at stake in the 2024 election, the Biden campaign will have no problem raising record amounts of money online,” said Lauren Miller, who served as digital director to Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaigns.

Mr. Trump’s small-dollar percentage cannot be discerned until his joint fund-raising committees, into which most of his online solicitations direct money, report finances. They are not required to do so until July 31.

Finance reports for the other Republican candidates reveal a party that, even more than Mr. Biden, is heavily reliant on large donors.

Among the other Republican candidates, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida reported $2.9 million from small donors, but that figure accounts for a mere 14 percent of what his campaign raised. The small-dollar percentages among other candidates ranged from 34 percent for former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to 2 percent for Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who is largely self-financing his campaign.

Unlike the Obama and Trump campaigns, the Biden campaign didn’t begin with a digital fund-raising team in place. Instead, it has relied on the Democratic National Committee for its online solicitations. The campaign advertised last week that it was seeking a “director of email and SMS” to lead a division that typically would have more than a dozen people. The campaign recently hired a grass-roots fund-raising director, an official said Saturday.

Mr. Biden’s campaign has plowed at least $3.3 million into advertising on Facebook and Google, according to data compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a marketing and communications agency. That figure is far more than any Republican candidate has spent on the platforms and suggests that the campaign is investing in its search for small donors.

Two of Mr. Biden’s top advisers, Anita Dunn and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who are overseeing his re-election campaign from the White House, this week formally blessed a super PAC, Future Forward, as the chief outlet for large sums of cash from supportive billionaires and multimillionaires.

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