Trump lags in small-dollar donations as GOP fundraising company hits snags


Stefani Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

Every so often, Matthew Hurtt receives concerning emails. The subject lines are each slightly different: “Stop charging my account,” “Urgent!” and “Donation not approved,” but the people who send them all want the same thing: to halt the Republican political contribution platform WinRed from making any more automatic, recurring withdrawals from their accounts.

Hurtt is chairman of the Virginia-based Arlington County Republican Committee and says he’s reviewed a “few dozen” of these types of emails since the 2020 election. When WinRed processes a contribution to a Republican campaign, the charge shows up on the donor’s credit card or bank statement as a payment to “WINRED, Arlington VA,” according to a statement provided by Hurtt and reviewed by CNBC.

As a result, people often mistakenly believe their money went to the Arlington County Republican Party, he said.

“Cancel account and stop billing my credit card,” Oklahoma resident Samie Elliot wrote in a January email that landed in Hurtt’s inbox. She later explained to him that neither she nor her husband, who are both retired, recalled ever signing up for recurring monthly political donations and that these charges have been occurring for at least a year.

Federal Election Commission records, however, paint a very different picture of the Elliots. According to campaign finance reports, WinRed processed $14,300 in political contributions from Elliot and her husband, Orin Elliot, between 2020 and the end of 2023.

These donations all appear to have been small, recurring contributions. Exactly the kind that Elliot said they did not recall signing up for. Samie Elliot did not respond to requests for comment.

“Every one of them has told me a similar story: elderly, sometimes dementia, and don’t remember donating month after month,” said Hurtt, who shared nine email exchanges with CNBC for this story.

“As a county committee chairman who struggles to raise money, it infuriates me,” he said.

WinRed did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s hard to overstate how important retired, small-dollar donors like the Elliots are to Donald Trump‘s 2024 presidential campaign, and to the entire Republican Party.

Donations from those who describe their occupations as “retired” made up about one-third of all the money the Trump campaign raised for his 2020 reelection campaign, roughly $255 million, according to OpenSecrets data.

For these donors, Trump’s brand of apocalyptic, aggrieved and hyperpersonal fundraising has been particularly effective.

“Older folks are generally more vulnerable and they’re often more easily taken in” by aggressive political fundraising appeals, according to Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the nonprofit watchdog Campaign Legal Center. The group filed an ethics complaint with the Federal Election Commission against WinRed in 2022.

“You see with former President Trump, that he’s fundraising off his indictments. He’s fundraising off of Valentine’s Day. These are the type of emails someone who is elderly is getting,” he said.

Today, five years after WinRed was founded and quickly rose to become the dominant digital fundraising platform for Republican candidates, these same donors whose recurring monthly contributions fueled Trump’s last presidential campaign do not appear to be giving at the same rate, or in the same quantity.

WinRed, meanwhile, has been sued almost half a dozen times since its launch in 2019, with the lawsuits bringing into question aggressive fundraising tactics by Republicans, according to court records.

ActBlue and Democrats have faced some of the same criticisms, but their share of refunds has, at times, been far less than their Republican counterparts.

Trump’s political operation, along with the Republican Party, refunded just over 10% of every dollar it raised through WinRed during the 2020 presidential election, according to The New York Times. That refund rate was more than four times that of President Joe Biden‘s campaign and surrounding political apparatus at that time, according to the Times.

Drop in small dollar Trump donations

In 2019, Trump’s campaign committee collected $72 million in donations of $200 or less, according to OpenSecrets.

That amount represented a portion of the more than $378 million that was raised from around the time Trump filed to run for reelection in 2017 through Dec. 31, 2020, from small-dollar donors, according to the data. Much of that funding from small-dollar donors arrived in the election year 2020, with the campaign reeling in more than $264 million over the course of those 12 months from people who gave $200 or less to Trump.

But fast forward several years, and from November 2022 through the end of last year, Trump’s presidential campaign collected just $27 million in donations from those who gave $200 or less, according to the data.

That’s a difference of $45 million, and represents a 62.5% drop in small-dollar donations, from the year before the 2020 election, to the year before the 2024 election.

A Trump campaign spokesman pointed CNBC to the help Trump received from outside groups while he was president, including a boost from the Republican National Committee, and said the campaign is still seeing support from small dollar donors.

“Despite facing a crowded primary field in this election cycle, President Trump continues to raise millions more from small dollar donors than all his primary opponents and Joe Biden, which serves as a powerful testament to his unprecedented and unwavering support from the American people,” the Trump campaign spokesman said.

Biden’s campaign with the assistance of joint fundraising committees has raised just over $46 million so far this election cycle from donors who gave $200 or less, according to OpenSecrets.

The $45 million drop-off in small donations for Trump is likely due to several factors.

In 2019, Trump was the incumbent president facing very little resistance, whereas in 2023 he’s had a dozen challengers for the Republican nomination, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Trump also had a head start in fundraising when he was president since he filed his reelection papers within a year of winning the 2016 contest versus Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Another factor was how the campaign committees collected and distributed funds.

In 2019, Trump was raising money through joint fundraising committees with the RNC. In 2023, he had no such arrangement and, instead, has a joint fundraising operation that raises money for both his campaign and a political action committee called Save America that helped pay for about $50 million in legal services.

There’s also the possibility of donor fatigue for the drop-off in Trump’s small-dollar donations. Despite Trump beating Haley in every caucus and primary contest so far, the results suggest a portion of Republicans are seeking an alternative to the former president.

Read more CNBC politics coverage

And the emails that Hurtt receives in his Arlington office from angry donors suggest there is an element of donor burnout and frustration at play for Trump and the Republican Party at large.

“We are being charged for something that we did NOT consent to purchase!!!! This needs an immediate response!!!!,” read one email from a desperate donor to the Arlington Republican committee.

After all, the Trump campaign still sends the same kinds of fundraising emails and text messages multiple times a day, that warn of doom and destruction unless the recipient gives money to show his or her support for Trump.

Trump and WinRed’s brand of aggressive political fundraising, as well as the results of some donors repeatedly donating, may not work that well anymore.

“Trump’s donors have continued to give, even despite the misleading fundraising appeals, the donor dollars paying for Trump’s personal legal costs, and the countless millions flowing to Trump properties and family members,” Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of campaign finance watchdog Documented, said in an email to CNBC. “Have donors finally had enough? Perhaps.”

Don’t miss these stories from CNBC PRO:

Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.