The Creative Fundraising Tactics Some Republicans Are Using To Make The Debate Stage

When the Republican National Committee released its qualification rules for the GOP’s first primary debate in August, a few Republican presidential contenders winced at the prospect of needing 40,000 unique donors to make the stage. Just six candidates have reached or eclipsed that mark so far, and it remains to be seen if some lesser-known candidates can do the same.

The donor requirement has created a perverse incentive in which some campaigns are willing to lose more money attracting donors than what they raise from them. Rather than trying to maximize the total amount of money they raise from donors, campaigns desperate to make the debate stage find themselves working to maximize the raw number of individual contributors, regardless of the costs.

With the pressure on, low-polling Republican campaigns are embracing creative measures to boost their donor counts. In the spirit of FiveThirtyEight’s long history of using backronyms in analyses, we decided to rank zany fundraising techniques based on a far-from-precise system we called DONORS: Dispensing Our Nuttiest Offerings to Reach the Stage. We prioritized the most outlandish and/or unprecedented gimmicks for attracting donors that could also cost the campaigns money relative to what they’ll bring in.

Burgum’s gift card bonanza

20,020 DONORS points

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s campaign has gone where no presidential campaign has gone before: the equivalent of an endcap at the front of your local grocery store. Last week, it began offering $20 gift cards to the first 50,000 donors who gave at least $1 — a giveaway that, in theory, could produce a net loss of as much as $950,000 (plus a few thousand more for the physical gift cards). 

Burgum, a former tech executive, can take the hit. He’s quite wealthy, so he can readily self-fund part of his presidential bid. But he has a major hurdle to overcome, which is that few Republicans know of him: Morning Consult recently found that only 1 in 5 potential primary voters had an opinion about him, making him one of the least-known candidates in the field. Yet the gift card ploy appears to be moving him closer to making the debate stage. On July 12, his campaign claimed it was on pace to parcel out more than 20,000 gift cards in the first two days. For all this, we have awarded him 20,020 DONORS points, with 20,000 for the donors the scheme has brought in and another 20 thrown in for the value of each card.

However, Burgum’s promotion has raised at least a few eyebrows, because it might run up against the limits of campaign finance law. The scheme could violate rules against straw donors, wherein someone donates to a campaign and is then reimbursed for that donation. But Burgum isn’t the first wealthy candidate to take a loss on a scheme to attract donors for debate qualification. Back in 2019, former Rep. John Delaney offered to give twice the amount someone donated to his campaign to the charity of their choice as he sought to reach 65,000 donors to qualify for the first Democratic debate that cycle.

Legal uncertainty aside, Burgum may still struggle to make the debate even if he does reach the donor threshold: The RNC requires a candidate to attain at least 1 percent support in three national polls, or in two national polls and at least one poll of the GOP’s first four states. Burgum, however, is currently polling at 0.2 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s national primary polling average, so polling may prove to be the bigger hurdle.

Suarez’s sweepstakes

16,000 DONORS points

Meanwhile, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s campaign and allies have embraced a sweepstakes approach to lure donors. It’s not unheard of for campaigns to give away prizes to a lucky donor — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 presidential campaign offered a meetup with her over a glass of whiskey — but Suarez makes our list because of how heavily his team is leaning into this approach a month before the debate.

Last Thursday, Suarez put out a call on Twitter for users to donate $1 to have a chance to win front-row tickets to watch soccer superstar Lionel Messi’s first game as a player for Inter Miami, the city’s MLS team. In keeping with his embrace of new-wave financial tools, Suarez asked for donors to send $1 to him via Venmo, the mobile payment service. Based on Inter Miami’s ticket site, a pair of tickets might’ve cost his campaign around $2,000 — unless they bought them on resale, in which case they got to experience the joy of paying up for an event on Ticketmaster. For this, we award Suarez’s campaign only 1,000 DONORS points, roughly equivalent to the price of an individual ticket.

That same day, SOS America, the super PAC supporting Suarez, announced its own sweepstakes: For a minimum $1 donation to Suarez’s campaign, someone could win up to $15,000 in tuition for an institution of higher learning (college, university, community college or vocational school). In many states, that amount would be sufficient to cover a year of tuition at a public university. This seems more broadly appealing than the Inter Miami tickets, so we’ll give Suarez 15,000 DONORS points for his allies choosing to knock off two semesters of college costs for someone — leaving him with a grand total of 16,000.

However, like Burgum, the Miami mayor’s current poll numbers are close to zero, so having 40,000-plus donors may be insufficient to qualify for the debate.

Johnson’s book fair

10,220 DONORS points

All little-known candidates will take a $1 donation to get them closer to the qualification threshold. But businessman Perry Johnson, who has not reached “major” candidate status per FiveThirtyEight’s criteria, is giving away an item for a buck that probably won’t garner a ton of donors: his book, “Two Cents to Save America.” The signed hard-cover edition of his treatise sat in 785,929th place on Amazon’s ranking of best-selling books, putting it a few hundred thousand spots behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recently-released tome. As Johnson’s book is 220 pages long, this appeal earned him an equivalent number of DONORS points.

To be fair, the personally wealthy Johnson is mostly self-funding his campaign, but he still needs donors for the debate stage. Earlier this month, his campaign said it had reached the 10,000 contributor mark, so Johnson is making progress. However, his campaign may be having more luck with another donor-attracting gimmick: His campaign is selling a T-shirt for $1 that says “I stand with Tucker,” in reference to the recently defenestrated Fox News host Tucker Carlson who has long held an influential place in conservative discourse. For Johnson’s donor count and the potentially greater appeal of that clothing item to contributors, we’ll give him 10,000 DONORS points, leaving him with a total of 10,220.

Still, even if Johnson does manage to garner 40,000 donors, he’s got a polling mountain to climb because many pollsters haven’t included him as an option since he announced his campaign in early March.

Honorable mention: Ramaswamy turns donors into fundraisers

Unlike the three candidates with DONORS scores, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy looks set to comfortably make the debate, thanks to 65,000-plus donors and regularly polling better than 1 percent in national and early state polls. But we’d be remiss to not mention his campaign’s new fundraising scheme inviting donors to make money fundraising for Ramaswamy.

Under the plan, contributors to Ramaswamy will have the opportunity — if they’ve passed a background check — to share a fundraising link to other potential donors, and in turn Ramaswamy’s campaign will pay them 10 percent of whatever they raise. As Politico noted, the program combines two types of traditional fundraising: bundlers and professional fundraisers. Bundlers work to get people to donate to a campaign in exchange for access and favors from the candidate, while professional fundraisers take a percentage of whatever they raise. But whereas bundlers and fundraisers usually work with large-scale donors, Ramaswamy’s campaign would look to these paid bundlers as a way to attract more small-dollar donors.

This arrangement won’t immediately affect Ramaswamy’s chances of making the first debate, but if the RNC raises the contributor requirement for future debates, this could prove helpful in growing his unique donor count.

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