Should “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg’s Small Donor Contribution Numbers Go Unchallenged?

Spoiler alert: No. (Normally, I deprecate humanizing nicknames for political figures. Sanders, not “Bernie”; O’Rourke, not “Beto”; Clinton, not “Hillary,” let alone mi abuela. But with “Mayor Pete” there’s a remote possibility of a better search ranking. So sue me.)

Let’s start with a recap of the Q1 Democrat fundraising figures just released. A couple of days ago, I published this table summarizing them, flagging them Buttigieg’s spending as (eyebrows raised) “extremely frugal” (Buttigieg having spent less than a million in his “meteoric rise”).

In this post, I want to raise two questions for the consideration of reportorial or analytical forces greater than my own: (1) Do the figures show that Buttigieg’s donors are small? (2) Do the figures show that Buttigieg’s campaign is frugal?

Do the Figures Show that Buttigieg’s Donors Are Small?

No. True, the table shows that 64% of Buttigieg’s donations are under $200. But are donations an adequate proxy for donors? No, because a donor with $2700 to spend (the Federal maximum for one election) could write one check (for $2700), or they could “debundle” their contribution by writing 100 checks (each for $27). In the latter case, the “donations under $200” figure would be artificially inflated, for public relations purposes. Analyst Nate Silver falls into this trap just today (“Silver Bulletpoints: We’ve Got Your Backlash To The Buttigieg Backlash“):

Here at Silver Bulletpoints, we like nothing better than to backlash against the backlash when we think the data supports our case. And in this case, we’re wary of the notion that the Buttigieg boom is solely a media concoction.

There’s no doubt about the initial spark for the Buttigieg bump: It was his CNN town hall on March 10. You can see it in itemized donations to Buttigieg’s campaign, which begin to spike on March 10 and continued from there.

“Spark” there may be, but if the “spike’ is from debundled donations, you’re looking at a spark from a propane fire starter rather than one of Nature’s lightning strikes. Again, one donor writing one check, or one donor writing a hundred checks? From the FEC data, you can’t tell.

Is debundling a mere theoretical possibility? No. The Obama campaign used debundling tactics in 2008, to make it appear that their candidate was small donor-driven[1]. From Thomas Ferguson, interviewed in 2011 by the Citizen Action Monitor:

To this day, despite all the noise about small contributions, and particularly on the Obama campaign, which made a big pitch that they were a small contribution group, we now know they were not. They were encouraging their people to break their contributions into small bits, often $200, and contribute over and over [“debundling”[. And the studies that initially started reporting that they were small contributor-driven — I know the data sources that they worked on – neither they nor the data sources have good enough matching programs to enable you to get the same person more than once unless everything is matched – that is to say, you know, the junior, the address, you change a middle initial and stuff like that you won’t typically catch it. And so they just miss the repeated contributions by the same folks. They keep recording them as multiple contributions.

(Note in passing that Ferguson’s Political Money Project has the proper methodology to clean the donation data; see Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen, “Party Competition and Industrial Structure in the 2012 Election,” International Journal of Political Economy.) The debundling tactic must, at this point, be well known to political professionals.

At this point, the rightly cynical reader will ask: But what about the Sanders campaign? They too “trumpet” their small donors. Could they be using debundling as well? In practice no. From Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen, “Industrial Structure And Political Outcomes: The Case Of The 2016 US Presidential Election” (PDF):

With respect to the Sanders campaign, these tables show something we are confident is without precedent in American politics not just since the New Deal, but across virtually the whole of American history, waiving the dubious case of the legendary 1896 election: a major presidential candidate waging a strong, highly competitive campaign whose support from big business is essentially zero. We are hardly the first to notice this fact, but like many other others, we had trouble believing our eyes. Thus we checked carefully. Sanders stands out not only for the high percentage of small contributions, but the minuscule totals of large contributions in the aggregate. Later in this essay, when we consider the sectoral breakdown of contributions, we will see that the handful of small donations scattered among our counts of big business contributions to Sanders clearly derive from many lower level employees, not top management. The few large contributions arise from aggregated contributions from a handful of unions (the official union leadership of most unions supported Hillary Clinton, see below). In 2016, Bernie Sanders was sui generis.

At least in 2016, Sanders did not employ debundling.

Do the Figures Show that Buttigieg’s Campaign Is Frugal?

No. The FEC table looks like Buttigeig is getting a big bang for the buck: A large number of small contributions (“Donations under $200”) for a small budget (“Total Spent”). If the donations are debundled, Buttigeig’s large number of small contributions looks less impressive. Similarly, if Buttigieg’s budget comes from just a few rich people, he also looks less impressive. Sadly, “just a few rich people” are the kinds of people Buttigieg hangs out with. From that hand-wringing New York Times story about “Stop Sanders” Democrats:

When Leah Daughtry, a former Democratic Party official, addressed a closed-door gathering of about 100 wealthy liberal donors in San Francisco last month, all it took was a review of the 2020 primary rules to throw a scare in them.

The matter of What To Do About Bernie [caps in the original] and the larger imperative of party unity has, for example, hovered over a series of previously undisclosed Democratic dinners in New York and Washington organized by the longtime party financier Bernard Schwartz. The gatherings have included scores from the moderate or center-left wing of the party, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California; Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader; former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., himself a presidential candidate; and the president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden.

And just today from CNBC:

Pete Buttigieg’s increasingly popular presidential run has drawn the support of more than two dozen top Democratic fundraisers, including people who bundled big-dollar donations for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during their White House bids, according to a list CNBC obtained from campaign aides.

The financiers on the roster range from former U.S. ambassadors to real estate executives, the latest evidence that the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s underdog[2] bid to challenge President Donald Trump next year is catching on with Democrats as the party sorts through a crowded primary field.

And:

Particularly, Buttigieg’s sincere approach is generating enthusiasm among the Democratic donor class.

ZOMG, ZOMG. Buttigieg’s “sincere approach.” I can’t even. But back to the matter at hand: If Buttigieg’s has fundraisers who worked for Obama, then he has fundraisers who know the techniques of debundling. And if Buttigieg has some significant fraction of those 100 wealthy liberal donors in his corner, his budgetary coffers would be very easy to fill. That doesn’t sound frugal to me.

Conclusion

Of course, means, motive, and opportunity don’t necessarily add up to a smoking gun. However, as Thomas Ferguson commented in email:

Even baseball scores get looked at more closely than the claims candidates and interested parties in the media advance about ‘small donors.’ No one should print such claims without careful checks. It’s the sort of thing that gives the free press a bad name.

I can only hope somebody does some serious investigation on this issue of how small Buttigieg’s donors really are. In addition, the Sanders campaign would do well to develop and publish its own figures on small donors, not small donations, to filter for debundling using a proper methodology. This would not only serve to emphasize their own uniqueness and legitimacy, it would serve as a lash and a spur to encourage other campaigns — and news organizations, if any such remain — to do the same.

NOTES

[1] I’m not all that enthusiastic about “small donors,” either. While it’s better to give small “small donors” some clout instead of simply having the 1% buy elections outright, the whole process skews upward and is in essence a modern-day property test. There are plenty of people who can’t contribute $27, and why should they have unequal abilities to affect elections?

[2] “Underdog” would imply the front-runner is… who?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

47 comments

    1. Yves Smith

      The number of unique donors is not reported by the FEC. It has to be put together. Ferguson says he and his colleagues (he has established collaborators he works with) are pretty much the only people who do what he does.

      Moreover, even that data isn’t what it seems to be. Large donors routinely give in their own name and a spouse’s name. Private equity firms will press the executives of portfolio companies to give to preferred candidates.

      Reply
    2. lambert strether

      Do consider reading the post:

      But are donations an adequate proxy for donors? No, because a donor with $2700 to spend (the Federal maximum for one election) could write one check (for $2700), or they could “debundle” their contribution by writing 100 checks (each for $27).

      The FEC reports on checks written. Ferguson has methodology to determine hw many donors wrote the checks.

      Reply
      1. Synoia

        I was pointing out a method which could work, not a metric that currently exists. My apologies for not making that clear. If there were such a metric, Lambert would have highlighted it in the article.

        And presuming a level of honesty which might not exist outside of this blog.

        Reply
        1. whiteylockmandoubled

          Again, you’ve missed the key point. The data (which I work with) are extremely messy, and it’s often very difficult to ascertain “large donors” who have given more than $200 in smaller increments until long after the fact. The FEC database will match contributions if certain fields are identical. But, as the article notes, if you change the name on the check or make typos in your address, you effectively become a “new donor” in the FEC data.

          For example, I’m a small Sanders (and even smaller) Gabbard donor. At the end of the cycle, I will likely be a “large” donor to Sanders because my occasional $27 contributions will probably add up to more than $200. I’m giving electronically, and thus the data accompanying each contribution should likely be the same, and I should be readily identifiable. However if, in a series of $100 contributions, I call myself. Jonathon Smith, Jonathon A. Smith, Jon Smith, John Smith, Jon A. Smith, Jonathan Avery Smith, Jon Avery Smith, Jonny Smith and then mix in my work and home addresses, each spelled slightly differently, I can max out at $2,700 and the FEC will not necessarily automatically identify the contributions as from the same source, and they won’t necessarily be returned unless the researcher is clever about searching.

          It’s worth noting that this is a public disclosure issue, not a question of actually defeating the contribution limits by individual, save for the technically legal practice, as Yves describes, of having all members of a family give.

          However, it requires a great deal of effort to clearly identify donors who do this. Lobbyists, in particular, just seem peculiarly unable to spell their own names and addresses, or seem to have lots of nicknames for themselves.

          Reply
  1. Intergalactic Joe

    Cuomo’s most recent campaign de-bundled also: Cuomo donor made 69 tiny donations to campaign

    Queens resident Christopher Kim donated $1 or $5 to Cuomo’s campaign 69 times over three days as the filing deadline approached.

    All told, he gave just $77, records show.

    But Kim isn’t just an overeager small-dollar donor: records show he shares a Long Island City apartment with the Cuomo campaign’s “creative director” Julia Yang.

    Is there a way (with the data available) to tell who’s been goosing their numbers, or is “average donation amount” an unsalvageable metric?

    Reply
  2. False Solace

    > Buttigieg’s sincere approach is generating enthusiasm among the Democratic donor class.

    Consider the Orwellian language. Buttigieg’s sincerity to donors literally means insincerity to voters. This insincerity is based on impenetrable vagueness, misdirection, and outright deception in the service of the wealthy donor class and in direct opposition to us. And this guy is by no means an exception. There are a dozen other candidates lined up to do the same thing.

    As long as donors control elections this country is effed.

    Reply
    1. Raulb

      Nathan Robinson of CurrentAffairs has a tour de force on Buttigieg including his early years and recent ‘biography’. This is an extremely well written piece.

      He captures the essence of what Buttigieg stands for – himself.

      Reply
    2. Monty

      The conclusions made in this post over contributions seem to be based on one-sided assumptions. Consider Buttigieg’s appeal to Millennials; many would be small donors. The reporting doesn’t provide enough information to support the conspiracy of a small number of large donors. It would be helpful to have more data.

      Reply
  3. Tom Doak

    It’s hard to call a candidate being pushed forward by Obama and Clinton fundraisers “an underdog,” but that won’t stop The New York Times.

    Reply
  4. jhallc

    “Pistol Pete*” certainly has managed to keep his powder dry, spending only 665K in the first quarter. He has benefited from free MSM exposure. Reminds me of someone else in 2015, not named Sanders.

    *my apologies to “Pistol” Pete Maravich

    Reply
  5. DAVID SMITH

    I’m not sure how spending a small portion of one’s cash is related to debundling. I’d guess the reason the Mayor spent little money in the first quarter was that he hadn’t announced, didn’t seem real organized, and was at or below 1% in the polls most of the time.

    Reply
    1. jhallc

      Total speculation on my part but, I don’t think he woke up one sunny Indiana morning and said to himself I’m going to run for President all on his own. I’m sure he has harbored these thoughts but, I’m guessing some well connected party types with access to big donors, helped persuade him to take the plunge. My big concern is, why do they want him in the race?

      Reply
      1. Carey

        I can recall Buttigieg’s name being mentioned for quite awhile now, much like Bubba Clinton’s in (IIRC) the very late 80s. Watch out for this Booty guy; he has powerful handlers, and IMO will do just as he’s told
        by them.

        Good to see Lambert right on this, BTW.

        Reply
      2. cm

        My big concern is, why do they want him in the race?

        Don’t DNC rules mandate a brokered convention if no candidate gets > 50% of the vote? I believe they want to throw as many candidates out so as to dilute Sanders’ return.

        Reply
        1. Larry Motuz

          I think so. This implies that the Superdelegates (under the elites’ control) have immense power in so-called ‘brokered conventions.

          Reply
    2. Samuel Conner

      I recall in the 2012 R Primary campaign that there was a multi-month period of hilarity in which first one and then another improbable alternative to Romney experienced a “pop” in the polls and had a week or two in the sun before fading and being replaced by someone else.

      Are we likely to see something like that in the 2020 D primary, with a succession of “anyone but Sanders” candidates temporarily looking appealing?

      Reply
      1. Carey

        That seems likely. Sanders’s and the Democrats’ business model are incompatible
        (not claiming this is an original thought). Quite a task for them, though, because
        they have to not just stop him, but also defuse and diffuse his very many reality-based backers.

        Mmm.

        Reply
      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Are we likely to see something like that in the 2020 D primary, with a succession of “anyone but Sanders” candidates temporarily looking appealing?

        I think we’re already seeing it. I think Sanders challenge is to win a national campaign. The Establishment’s challenge is to assemble a coalition of regional oligarchies (***cough*** Harris ***cough***) and industrial oligarchies (hat tip, Thomas Ferguson; Beto and oil) such that Sanders does not secure 50% + 1 on the first ballot (which is indeed the standard).

        Reply
        1. Allegorio

          This is not going to work and the reason is Medicare for All is so popular and people are so fed up with private insurance. Buttagieg can prevaricate all he wants, Medicare for anybody who wants it is not going to fly. Free at the point of service has a very big appeal. So Buttagieg can lie in several languages, good for him, but nobody has to believe him in any language.

          Reply
        2. Allegorio

          Further, does this Buttagieg cavalcade of donors mean that they have given up on the working man’s oligarch Joe Biden? I believe it has. Still don’t think he is going to run. Sanders could devastate him on his record.

          Reply
  6. Alexis Soule

    hmmm…. I’m one of those people skewing the numbers, unintentionally.
    With Bernie, I started out, the day he announced, and donated $10; then said, ‘what the heck, let’s make it $10/month, then he has a steady stream, even if it’s only a trickle.’
    And I responded to requests, again and again, and still do, never giving more than $10 or $20 or $30, but by george, it adds up.
    AND it inspired me to donate to lots of other candidates, all over the country, if they supported him, & particularly ones he supported (because I wanted him to be seen as someone who could fundraise, as well as that these others seemed to be working on issues that concerned me…)
    And so, I spent more on politics than in my entire life over the last couple of years. And will probably continue to, a little at a time, because it seems better than saying I can’t do anything…

    Reply
  7. Dianne Shatin

    Bernie Sanders is a millionaire. Peter Buttegrieg is running a competitive campaign and we will see in the year ahead how the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, let’s refrain from being overly set on tearing apart candidates barely out of the gate. Together we win, divided we fall.

    Reply
    1. Fiery Hunt

      “Competitive”, how? Policies to match Sanders (M4A, income inequality), Warren and her blizzard of positions on breaking up Big Tech, Wall St, Big Oil, or Gabbard on foreign policy?
      What exactly is Mayor Privilege’s policy agenda?
      Oh, that’s right…he’s the gay Obama…he doesn’t need policy, he’s articulate in spewing corporate jargon word salads!

      This ain’t no identity politics beauty contest. Neoliberals need to be blasted from the beginning and with full fury.

      Reply
      1. Samuel Conner

        I’m inclined to agree. As we can pretty confidently expect to see the neo-lib wing of the party undertake daily or more frequent ritual “two minutes hate” toward Sanders, it is probably best to be pro-active in response.

        Reply
    2. JerryDenim

      “Bernie Sanders is a millionaire”

      Yeah? So what? He’s a US Senator pushing eighty years old, he’s a national celebrity and the author of several best sellers. He never has advised companies on the best way to outsource jobs or screw employees out of their pensions while working for McKinsey & Co. and he never has compromised any of his principles to make a buck as far as anyone can tell. He also hasn’t changed his tune about higher, more progressive tax brackets, the threat of plutocracy/oligarchy etc since he’s become a national celebrity in the money.

      Bernie Sanders has a loooong record of being on the right side of unpopular and dangerous issues going back to the civil rights era. What kind of a record does Buttigieg have? A few years in municipal politics to go with an Ivy pedigree, a sleazy corporate outfit and some spooky sounding military service?

      If people here don’t like Buttigieg it’s probably because they have memories of a certain smooth talking Ivy League Hope and Change candidate with a thin resume not that many presidential election cycles ago. Hell, at least Obama was considerate enough to hold both state and national office before declaring he was fit for the highest office in the land. Buttigieg is 37, and his only public office experience is serving as the mayor of some by-gone little town in Indiana, but he wants us to trust him while he wings it in the Oval Office and learns the ropes of Washington? This young political neophyte wunderkind mayor would like voters to overlook another wildly popular mayor who also happens to have 28 years of experience in Washington and a rock-solid life long progressive record.

      Buttigieg- hard pass. I think you might be able to see why so many people are so skeptical about Buttigieg. It’s nothing personal, he doesn’t have the record, he doesn’t have the experience and words just don’t cut it, especially after the epic let-down of the Obama presidency. Let him hold higher office and prove his progressive bonafides then I would be willing to take a look. Right now he just seems like an overly ambitious, under-experienced young man with flexible morals looking to get ahead in life.

      Reply
    3. Prairie Bear

      This used to be the approach of the GOP. Ronald Reagan called it the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” It wasn’t followed by Trump, obviously. Says a lot that the Democratic Party elites have now adopted it.

      Reply
    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      The last words:

      > Together we win, divided we fall

      The first words:

      > Bernie Sanders is a millionaire

      Huh?

      * * *

      Also, “overly set” is presumes what it needs to prove; it begs the question. What’s “overly”? Well-crafted talking points, though. A lot could slip by the reader who isn’t careful.

      Reply
    5. whiteylockmandoubled

      “Bernie Sanders is a millionaire” but let’s not tear down (non-Bernie) candidates. Well executed from the DNC talking point only-punch-left playbook. Sweet.

      Reply
  8. thoughtful person

    Does anyone know if PACs and ‘dark money’ is yet active in the campaign? Seem like someone threw some serious $ into PR, online influencers etc for Mayor Pete… his 800 thou spent thus far does not explain all the free media imo.

    Reply
    1. Fiery Hunt

      Oh, trust me, Ol Davey Brock is getting his slice of the “dark money” and paying the minions to whisper on the internets against Sanders.

      See Dianne Shatin comment above.

      Reply
      1. diptherio

        No need to assume some particular motive, the poor argument speaks for itself and is easily dismantled.

        Reply
  9. JerryDenim

    “….undisclosed Democratic dinners in New York and Washington organized by the longtime party financier Bernard Schwartz.”

    Bernard Schwartz! Wow. Can’t believe that guy is still around. 1990’s era Clinton booster and linchpin of various Clinton-China scandals involving his aerospace company that wanted to sell sensitive nuclear missle and spy satellite technology to the Chinese. ‘Interesting’ figure to say the least. More like a James Bond super villain. The media should not be allowed to print the name of that traitor without including the word “disgraced.” As in “..,the disgraced longtime party financier Bernard Schwartz”

    Bill Clinton’s compromising of national security and the sale of state secrets to the Chinese for campaign cash and perhaps some lessor known incentives is the greatest unreported scandal/real conspiracy of that sordid administration. The Clintons’ traitorous history with the Chinese made the bogus Russia-Gate saga that much more hypocritical and harder for me to stomach.

    nytimes.com/1998/05/24/us/a-top-clinton-donor-says-money-didn-t-buy-approval-on-satellites.html

    Reply
  10. Phil M

    As an upstate New Yorker it’s amusing to see Gillibrand’s spend. She hasn’t gotten much bang for the $ that’s for sure.

    Reply
  11. Steven Greenberg

    The Sanders campaign has published the figure of merit that I say is the most reliable one. We need to know the percentage (fraction) of total money raised that came from donors whose total contribution was $200 or less. Any other number is subject to easy manipulation. I had told the Sanders campaign to not use any other number than the one that his opponents could not spoof.

    Reply
  12. Mattski

    Well, I’m debundling by sending ten simoleons a month to Bernie. :)

    I’m gonna use the access obtained to get my kid healthcare.

    Reply
  13. justin synnestvedt

    I’ve contributed half a dozen times to Sen. Sanders – $27 average – from $20 to $50. I don’t know if each of those is registered as from the same donor.

    Justin (“Once a thinker, always a thinker”) in Chicago

    Reply

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