Hillary Clinton's campaign had planned for any number of troubles on her path toward the Democratic nomination; money was never supposed to be among them.
Now, at a crucial point in the race, Clinton finds herself under financial stress. The Bernie Sanders money machine keeps churning, sweeping up millions of dollars more than the Clinton campaign has been able to find of late, positioning the democratic socialist from Vermont to compete in states where he was never expected to be a threat.
As Clinton’s network of fundraisers in cash-rich regions like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area struggles to fill events where tickets typically cost $2,700 — the maximum a donor can give in the primary — Sanders is not holding any. His money comes almost entirely online and keeps coming and coming, far faster and more steadily than small donations do on Clinton’s website.
Clinton’s rainmakers have grown anxious. She began the month with $18 million more in the bank than Sanders, but he is replenishing funds so fast that he has been able to vastly outspend her on the campaign trail lately, enabling him to start building support even in states where she had a months-long head start.
“The pond is getting fished out. Everyone is sending invitations to the same group of people. And those people have already given as much as they are allowed to give,” warned a Clinton loyalist in Los Angeles who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the campaign.
“There are only so many people in Hollywood with $2,700 to give. Eventually you burn through them,” said another political insider, an advisor to wealthy donors in Los Angeles. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the fraught issue of cash.
Clinton is again fishing for contributions in California, with events planned up and down the coast Sunday and Monday. Yet her campaign anticipates that Sanders will raise more than her in February, as he did last month.
The super PACs that support Clinton have additional tens of millions of dollars in their accounts. But that money can provide only little help right now. The largest such political action committee, Priorities USA, has put up $5 million for efforts to increase minority turnout in the next several primary states, a move that would presumably help Clinton, who has drawn more support than Sanders from blacks and Latinos.
But several factors limit the role the PACs can play: Clinton has no control over the super PAC money, and she has said publicly that she would prefer that the people who do control it use it to fight Republicans this fall. And any super PAC attacks on Sanders would create a host of headaches for her campaign.
Raising money from Wall Street, which has backed Clinton in the past, also would prove problematic. Clinton is locked in “Goldman handcuffs,” a term increasingly used in the campaign to describe the constraint generated by Sanders’ criticism of the huge speaking fees she has collected from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms.
The Sanders windfall of small-dollar donations enabled him to spend more than Clinton on television advertising in the final days before the New Hampshire primary and then to immediately get a jump on the airwaves in Nevada, where an initial onslaught helped him give her a considerable scare. Her dominance in that state vanished by the time she won its caucuses Saturday. More than 47% of caucusgoers chose Sanders, and he earned just a handful fewer delegates than Clinton.
For a candidate who rails against the corrupting influence of money in politics and shows disdain for deep-pocketed donors, Sanders has a remarkable amount of cash to spend — nearly $35 million in January compared with the nearly $20 million spent by Clinton.
The average size of a Sanders contribution in January was $27, a figure the candidate repeats so often that it became a joke on “Saturday Night Live” this month. Only about 600 people have given Sanders the $2,700 legal maximum.
Clinton has received 23,000 donations at the maximum. But such checks are becoming harder to find. Clinton’s team is now intensely focused on expanding its network of small givers. She has about 700,000 such donors. Sanders has double that.
“The problem for Clinton is nobody thinks she needs their money,” said Nicco Mele, a technologist who in 2004 helped Vermont Gov. Howard Dean use the Internet to shatter fundraising expectations by mobilizing the same type of progressive now giving to Sanders. By contrast, “everyone in the world thinks Bernie can’t survive without their money,” said Mele, a former executive at The Times.
Comments on the Facebook pages of the two candidates make the difference explicit, as one big-dollar Clinton fundraiser in California noted in anxiously reading them aloud during a recent phone call with a reporter.
The Sanders page is full of small donors evangelizing about the importance they attach to their small gifts. Not so on the Clinton page.
“I’m glad I’m not in the middle of this,” said Lindsay Mark Lewis, a former national finance director for the Democratic Party and author of “Political Mercenaries: The Inside Story of How Fundraisers Allowed Billionaires to Take Over Politics.”
Clinton has a clear path out of her doldrums, Lewis said: Start winning states. A big night for Clinton on March 1, when 11 states vote, could lead to a significant pruning of the Sanders money tree. Clinton’s big lead in the polls in several of those states has some of her supporters confident of that outcome.
“From where we sit, she is right on track with plenty of room to grow,” said Andy Spahn, whose political consulting firm advises Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. “Nothing fuels fundraising like winning, so let’s talk after Super Tuesday.”
Former California state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, both of whom have raised more than $100,000 for Clinton, said in interviews that they also were confident that Clinton was where she needed to be.
Clinton’s relatively narrow victory Saturday in Nevada, though, is unlikely to create a sea change in cash flow to the candidates. Neither is expected to collect the kind of windfall Sanders attracted after he routed Clinton by 22 percentage points in New Hampshire, when he raised more in one day than Clinton raised on average over 10 days in January.
The Clinton campaign, faced with the possibility of a continued onslaught from Sanders’ legion of small donors and trying to grow its own such army, has been sending fundraising appeals online with an increasingly alarmed tone.
“The Sanders campaign is outspending us on television in key Super Tuesday states, just like they did in New Hampshire,” warned a pitch sent Thursday. “We absolutely must fight back — can you help?”
The ask? $1.
For more on the Clinton campaign, follow @evanhalper