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How low-level donors are remaking Georgia’s 2020 presidential race

Alexis Rhodes sometimes donated to a 2020 White House hopeful to get campaign swag, such as bumper stickers for a political-themed party. Other times it was to ensure she was on a campaign mailing list. And some donations were timed to help a candidate get on the debate stage.

Over the course of a few months, Rhodes dipped into her wallet to contribute roughly $150 to a half-dozen candidates, giving some as little as $1. Those small-dollar donations put her on the cusp of a trend that’s remaking how political campaigns are run in Georgia and beyond.

“It makes a difference,” said Rhodes, a digital marketing specialist in Atlanta. “What I’ve been telling people is that I’m dating around — and I want to see what each of the candidates can bring to the table.”

Rhodes is one of 46,000 small-dollar donors from Georgia who gave to Democratic White House hopefuls in the first six months of the year — a group that poured roughly $1.9 million into the campaign accounts of more than two dozen contenders.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows about one-sixth of those donors are hedging their bets by giving to multiple Democratic candidates this year — doling out more than $640,000 in smaller contributions. And they are embracing their indecisiveness.

“I want to dispel the notion that people can’t support multiple candidates,” Alicia Scarborough said. “We should support as many as we can so we make sure we have a strong pool of candidates.”

Scarborough, who owns a consulting agency, has put her money where her mouth is this year — though it has cost her less than filling up a tank of gas. She chipped in a five-spot to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris back in April, then gave a buck each to a dozen different candidates in June.

“For many years, large dollars have spoken louder than the average person. But I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk and meet with just about everyone I’ve given to,” Scarborough said.

“It’s a new race. It’s a new day,” she said. “And I’m happy to continue to support a large number of candidates until the field starts to narrow.”

‘Embarrassment of riches?’

The review of data from the ActBlue payment processor offers an in-depth look at how small-dollar donors — those who give $200 and less — have helped define a crowded Democratic field focused on raising money from grassroots supporters.

Those small-dollar donations are playing an outsized role in the 2020 race partly because of new rules from the Democratic National Committee that require candidates to raise cash from a certain number of donors to qualify for the first few rounds of televised debates.

That has triggered a competition for donors. Samantha Claar, an artist in Norcross, likes to think of herself as a “strategic donor” after scattering about $200 — mostly in $5 and $10 increments — to seven different White House hopefuls between March and June.

An early supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, Claar is open to a broader field of candidates this year — particularly contenders who come from more diverse backgrounds.

“I was very interested in keeping some of the lesser-funded candidates in the mix,” Claar said. “The whole group is an embarrassment of riches, and I want to make sure they stay in the debates and everyone can hear from them.”

The analysis, which relies on data from the Center for Public Integrity, shows that Sanders continues to dominate among small-dollar donors. He’s raised more than $450,000 from donors in Georgia, and nationally he has collected about $30 million from 746,000 different contributors.

He’s followed by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who has collected roughly $325,000 in low-level donations from Georgians, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has amassed about $260,000 in small contributions.

Rounding out the top group is former Vice President Joe Biden, who took in about $220,000 from ActBlue contributions in Georgia, and Harris, who banked about $200,000 from small donors in the state.

The rest of the field lagged behind. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke captured about $90,000 in small donors, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who is returning to Atlanta next week for a “grassroots fundraiser,” took in about $45,000.

Most other candidates raised far less. Several low-profile candidates raised just a few thousand dollars from small-dollar donors in Georgia. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took in less than $300.

‘Headless chicken’

The ActBlue data offers a broad view of those small-dollar donors who are giving to Democratic campaigns. But it doesn’t provide the full picture because it doesn’t include donors who give small amounts directly to candidates. Nor does it include many higher-dollar gifts.

An earlier AJC analysis of preliminary federal data showed Biden was the leading Democratic fundraiser among Georgians who contributed larger donations, topping $200, that are required to be itemized by each campaign.

Republicans, too, are trying to capitalize on President Donald Trump’s success with small donors. He typically raises at least half of his campaign cash from people who give less than $200, often for “Make America Great Again” merchandise. National Republicans back a WinRed fundraising platform that will try to mirror the success of ActBlue.

Still, Democrats in Georgia enjoy a hefty head start with small-dollar donors — not just in the presidential contest, but other high-profile races.

An earlier AJC review of federal campaign contributions found that roughly one-fifth of donations to Democratic candidates in the state’s most closely watched congressional races were for less than $200. By contrast, Republicans raised about 4% of their cash from small donors.

“We’re at a pivotal point in our nation and it takes ingenuity and I felt like my dollars would be heard,” Scarborough said. “I know my dollar has value and collectively we’re able to put more voices on the stage so more of our concerns can be heard. And it worked.”

As for Rhodes, who is starting a super PAC geared toward millennial voters, she used some of the campaign stickers she received for her donations to decorate her place for a “Fight Night” themed debate-watch party.

She’s leaning toward supporting Warren’s campaign now but said she’s likely to keep giving to other candidates — perhaps even the more moderate ones.

“Honestly,” she said with a laugh, “I’d vote for a headless chicken over Trump at this point.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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