By Elizabeth Castillo| CalMatters
Jennifer Jennings dons a veritable uniform these days. Whether she’s picking up groceries, cruising through a fast-food drive-thru or headed to the carwash, she’s always sporting Bernie-wear — sweatshirts, t-shirts, whatever.
But she doesn’t just wear her support on her sleeves. She’s also been making small online donations — hundreds of them — to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, the progressive senator from Vermont who continually assails the “billionaire class.”
“It has just become part of my life now. It’s a dollar a day,” said Jennings, a safety manager at the Port of Long Beach. “I live paycheck to paycheck and somehow, I’m contributing this money because I’m making that choice, ya know? I’m making minimum credit card payments by their due date and that’s all I’m willing to do,” she said. But when it comes to Bernie, “I want to do my part. I want to participate.”
A CalMatters analysis of the latest available Federal Election Commission data shows that of the 20 California donors under the same name who made the greatest number of small presidential campaign contributions in 2019, one supports President Donald Trump. The rest are backing Democrats. Fifteen of those sent most or all of their donations to the Sanders campaign.
And those donations are adding up.
“In January, our campaign raised an incredible $25 million from more than 648,000 people,” Sanders’ campaign tweeted Thursday. “Our average donation: just $18.”
The donations the commission reports are “itemized” contributions , which add up to more than $200 a year (more on that here). Small donors who give less than $200 a year aren’t listed in the data.
The GOP has set its sights on small donations, too.
Trump’s reelection campaign raked in more than $12 million in itemized donations in 2019 — more than any other candidate.
The most frequent Trump small donor — Gary Schneider of Mountain View — didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. Schneider, a Lyft driver who has given more than 200 donations to the president’s campaign, made some of his contributions through the platform WinRed.
WinRed on the right, and ActBlue on the left, have sprung up as ways to streamline the process, making it more convenient and appealing to frequent small donors.
WinRed says it raised more than $100 million in its first 190 days last year.
“WinRed donation pages that include the word “impeach” or “impeachment” raised over 300% more than non-impeachment pages,” states a blog post on the organization’s website. “In fact, after the House Democrats formally opened their impeachment inquiry on October 31st, WinRed fundraising spiked 176% per day on average.”
ActBlue, a platform used by nearly every Democratic presidential candidate, reported breaking records on New Year’s Eve by receiving more than half a million contributions and raising more than $20 million in a single day. Overall, donors made 35 million contributions through ActBlue last year, according to the organization, which says it processed over $1 billion in donations.
Some small donors prefer to spread the wealth, or rather their sliver of it.
Jo Postyn, 87 of Palo Alto, has been giving small donations to an array of candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg. She said she can’t decide which candidate deserves a larger share of her money.
“I think it’s important to make contributions…” she said, “because our country is in pretty bad shape.”
Some donors give whenever sporadically, whenever the spirit, or the campaigns, move them.
When Sacramento teacher Mariah Martin, 37, sees a Sanders email about his education policy or another issue she’s passionate about, she donates online.
“I give pretty much whenever I am inspired by something that Bernie says or there’s something else happening where I feel like, ‘because of this, I should just go donate to Bernie’ and that will make me feel better about whatever is happening in the news,” she said.
For many of these donors, a small contribution can be a big sacrifice. Barbara Whipperman, an 83-year-old retiree living in Richmond, splits her donations between Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her donations, she says, are around $5 each.
“Well, I don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “I worry a little about my own long-term income.”
Whipperman, a retired administrative assistant for UC Berkeley, has taken a reverse mortgage on her house and typically spaces out her donations around her pension and social security checks. The in-home care she needs is a financial worry for her, and she says her checks don’t really cover the expense.
“I’m kinda worried about how things are going to work out later,” she said. “I will probably stop donating at some point.”
Other small donors don’t necessarily choose their method out of necessity. Bob Bogardus, a 64-year-old self-proclaimed “geeky IT guy” in Carmel, has made more than 400 contributions to Sanders. He doesn’t want to volunteer at a phone bank or knock on doors.
Instead he set up a daily donation of $2.70 — because $27 was the average nationwide donation to Sanders in his 2016 presidential campaign.
“We have resources and it’s fun,” he said. “We love Bernie and he makes everything fun, and we’re really proud to participate in that way.”
Other ways, too. Last Halloween, Bogardus spent a couple of hours taping labels sporting Sanders name to each piece of Halloween candy he gave to the roughly 300 trick-or-treaters that stop by.
“We put a Bernie banner up. We have one of these large life-sized cardboard cutouts of Bernie so people took selfies with it,” he said. So beyond donating, “we’re doing a little bit in other areas too.”
Elections reporter Ben Christopher contributed to this report.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.