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Politics

Increasingly desperate second-tier Democratic hopefuls scramble to keep presidential bids going

The first Democratic debate in Miami | Night 1
From left, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney participate in the candidate debate in Miami in June. All four are at risk of not making the cut for debates in the fall.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Andrew Yang has never muscled a bill through Congress, or even gaveled in a local city council meeting. But the entrepreneur vying for the Democratic presidential nomination is adept at social media, and for many candidates desperate to stay in the race, that’s what matters right now.

Yang and his disparate coalition of techies, progressives, libertarians, Trump devotees, Twitter trolls, and anti-circumcision crusaders have leveraged their aptitude for viral moments to deliver something that makes many better-known rivals envious: 130,000 donors.

That, along with 2% standing in polls, constitutes the threshold a candidate must cross to stay on the Democratic debate stage past next week’s event in Detroit.

So far, former Vice President Joe Biden; Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas have hit both the donor and polling thresholds. Yang and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro say they have met the donor threshold, while Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota appear to have met the polling threshold but are still short on donors.

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A dozen or more candidates, including U.S. senators, governors and members of Congress, are in jeopardy of falling short. Many fear that if they fail to earn a spot at the podium at the September debate in Houston, they could fall out of the race.

“It is critical to make it onto that debate stage,” said Sawyer Hackett, press secretary for Castro. “It is not just an opportunity to talk to 15 or 20 million people watching. The media coverage of your campaign will be based on whether you make it. Some of these candidates may be looking at this debate and saying, ‘This is my last chance.’”

To avoid losing that chance, some candidates are going to desperate lengths — spending a fortune trying to attract anyone who might throw a buck their way so they can be claimed as one of the new donors needed by the Aug. 28 deadline.

“This is becoming the great Facebook and Google bailout,” said a high-level operative for one of the candidates, remarking on the huge amounts campaigns are spending on social media ads to attract low-dollar donors. “These one-dollar donors are as valuable as voters at this point, which is a little messed up.”

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Booker, for example, has spent $2.7 million placing hundreds of ads on Facebook since June 1, according to the digital tracking firm Pathmatics. Many are a message from the candidate that essentially says, “It’s cool if you may not vote for me, but I really, really need that buck.”

Such ads are all-but guaranteed to cost far more than they bring in, draining away resources needed for field organizers, ads and other parts of a successful campaign, but campaign strategists hope they will at least generate enough $1 donors to stay in the debate.

Earlier in the cycle, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney offered to give $2 to charity for every new $1 donation. It was a cheaper route than some alternatives. Campaigns have complained of being charged by digital consultants as much as $40 to attract a single $1 donor.

Similar efforts are being repeated by other candidates all over social media. The tactics involved do not always project a presidential look.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand can be viewed on Facebook playing a beer-pong-like game at a bar, asking for $1 if she successfully tosses a ping-pong ball into a cup (she does). Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan tweeted a photo of himself in a yoga pose with a promise that new donors of $3 or more could enter for a chance to “DO YOGA WITH TIM.”

Others have family members, friends and — especially — celebrity friends shooting shaky iPhone videos to amplify the urgency. On Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s home page, a 60-second clock starts ticking the second users land, warning they have one minute to help Gabbard reach her goal. Just below, in a large font, screams the real-time donor count. She’s still tens of thousands of donors short.

“Campaigns have changed the way they operate because of these requirements,” said Hackett, whose boss, Castro, benefited from a standout performance in the first debate in Miami last month to propel him past the donor threshold. That milestone came only after Castro invested considerable resources in honing his pitch for a dollar, including posting a Twitter ad with his mom, where she asks for the buck.

The video of Castro and his mom has clocked a noteworthy 43,000 views. But in the arena of Twitter gimmicks, it was vastly overshadowed by Yang’s promise to “give $1,000/mo for the next 12 months FREE to someone who retweets this and follows me.”

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That pitch not only amplified Yang’s plan for universal basic income — which promises a government check of $1,000 a month to every American adult — but earned him as many as 150,000 new followers. They were all potential donors.

Officials from several campaigns said the imperative to hit the debate threshold has meant diverting resources from grassroots organizing and staff in early voting states to chasing single-dollar donors whose interest in the candidate is likely fleeting.

“We’ve had to shift resources from developing a ground game and building up staff to writing a blank check to Facebook,” said a senior campaign official for a candidate on track to make the September debate stage.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, not a social media standout or a particularly prolific fundraiser, griped recently that viral moments do not signal durable momentum. Treating them as if they do is a threat to democracy, he said.

Some Democrats, however, say candidates struggling to meet the threshold should stop complaining about the success of contenders like Yang, Buttigieg and Castro and start learning from it.

“All the whining about this demonstrates a lack of imagination,” said Tara McGowan, chief executive of Acronym, a nonprofit that advises progressives on digital campaigning. She said the donor threshold sensibly pushes Democrats to innovate online at a crucial time. The nominee will face a president who is successfully pushing into new frontiers of digital organizing.

“If you are relying on convincing people with desperate pleas to give you $1 to make the debate stage instead of inspiring them with your candidacy, we think you are doing it wrong,” she said.

How to do it right? An inspiring moment on the debate stage can go a long way.

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Castro netted 60,000 donors in the few days following the Miami debate in June. Other campaigns took notice. And they will be seeking to replicate that performance when 20 contenders take the stage in Detroit next week. That’s likely to make for a lot of interruptions on the stage.

“We are counting on the debate to help,” said Patricia Ewing, communications director for Marianne Williamson, the author of spirituality books who still needs some 40,000 donors to make the next round.

In the runup to Detroit, Williamson has also road-tested some unconventional tactics. She forged an alliance of sorts with fellow outsider candidate Mike Gravel, an 89-year-old former senator from Alaska and direct-democracy enthusiast who is relying on the social media savvy of two teenagers who enlisted him to run. (It turns out they are quite savvy, drawing tens of thousands of contributions.)

Williamson took notice and implored her own contributors to kick into Gravel’s campaign, telling supporters in an email that “his voice is important.”

Dollars came pouring in for Gravel. “The @marwilliamson bump is in full effect,” said a post on his Twitter account, above a chart showing a flurry of new donations.

The Gravel campaign later reported it texted supporters, asking them to give to the “brave and brilliant @marwilliamson, whose calls for peace and reconciliation are exactly what our campaign is about.”

Whether either campaign can cross the polling threshold is another question. Reaching 2% support may not sound like a lot, but with the leading candidates collectively netting 80% or more in surveys, and a large number of voters telling pollsters they’re undecided, there’s little space left over.

One thing that is clear about the scramble to make the stage in the fall: It has been good for Facebook. And that strikes some political operatives as ironic at a time many Democrats are irate with the social media giant.

“The people who are benefiting the most out of this are Facebook,” said Chris Nolan, founder of Spot-On, a digital strategy shop based in Silicon Valley. “This is a firm that was just hit with a $5-billion fine for violating user privacy. If this were a direct mail company or a TV ad firm, no one in politics would go near them.”


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