A retired nurse who lives with her three dogs in the Central Valley town of Los Banos, Leslie Kensill doesn’t have much money to spend on politics. But she likes Democrat Gavin Newsom—his support for immigrants, for gay marriage, for legalizing marijuana—so she decided in 2016 to help his campaign for governor as best she could.
“I gave $5 a month, just because I can’t afford any more than that,” Kensill said.
Occasionally she stretched to give $10 or $25, and over time her donations added up to $125, according to campaign flings with the secretary of state. When Election Day rolled around this week, Kensill cast her ballot for Newsom, one of 1.3 million votes that propelled him to a first-place finish in the California primary.
It was a race that offered lessons about the role that money can play in politics: While small donations alone did not secure Newsom’s win—he also got plenty of big money—they likely helped build enthusiasm that paid off on Election Day. Meanwhile, the lackluster finish by Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, who was trying to get second place in California’s top-two primary, shows that a gush of money from a handful of mega-donors doesn’t always translate into votes.
Newsom raised about $27.6 million—by far the most of any candidate for governor. About 9 percent of those donations were $200 or less, a CALmatters analysis shows. It’s hardly an overwhelming portion of his fundraising, and some donors gave small amounts more than once. A few losing candidates raised a much greater share from small donors.
But Villaraigosa raised less than 1 percent of his $11.1 million in increments of $200 or less—the smallest share of any major candidate for governor. Even more stark: Villaraigosa enjoyed support from several wealthy individuals who each kicked in $1 million or more to an independent committee helping him.
“In order to be a viable candidate, you need that big money for (advertising). But what you also need is voters and on-the-ground support,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. “Sometimes the small donors are a better proxy for the excitement of the voters.”
The independent campaign supporting Villaraigosa spent more than $20 million blanketing the state with TV commercials, text messages and mail. But it didn’t buy the ripple effect that small-dollar donors can create.
“A person who has given $10 or $25 is more likely to receive repeat messages from the campaign and is more likely to be recruited into the other forms of political activism,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan group that analyzes money in politics.
Such donors often become street-level surrogates for the campaign, he said, posting messages on social media and persuading friends and neighbors to support their favored candidate. Some take on more formal campaign volunteer roles, like making phone calls to get people to vote.
“There is a sense of personal investment in the outcome,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic political consultant who is advising Newsom. “That’s how you build a volunteer army.”
Barack Obama famously leveraged the power of small donations in his 2008 campaign for president, when about 30 percent of his fund-raising came as $200 or less. But state-level races rarely garner that much in small giving, according to Malbin, who said the trend is extreme in California. In states across the country in 2014, about 13 percent of donations to gubernatorial and legislative candidates came in amounts of $250 or less, Malbin’s research shows. But in California it was just 4 percent.
In this week’s California primary, the candidates whose messages were the most politically extreme actually received the greatest portion of money in small dollars: Democrat Delaine Eastin at 26 percent and Republican Travis Allen at 45 percent. But their polarizing positions also likely made it difficult for them to attract large donations from influential interest groups. Both lost.
John Cox, the Republican businessman who came in second place and will face Newsom in the November election, poured about $4.9 million of his own money into his primary campaign. Roughly 8 percent of his overall funding arrived in increments of $200 or less. Cox will try to earn more support from small donors in the coming months, campaign manager Tim Rosales said, but is willing to pitch in more of his own money, too: “John is going to do what it takes to try and win in November.”
Villaraigosa’s attempt to run a centrist campaign that might appeal to voters from both parties made it hard to attract small donations, said his campaign manager, Eric Jaye. He jumped into the race almost two years after Newsom did, which also put him at a disadvantage. And, Jaye said, many of Villaraigosa’s supporters are poor.
“These are not the people who rush to give away $5 to anybody,” he said. “A lot of our voters were having trouble making their rent.”
By contrast, the independent committee backing Villaraigosa received huge donations from billionaires around the country. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $3.5 million.
“Mike was proud to support Antonio not because he assumed a favorable outcome to the race, but because he wanted to demonstrate loyalty to a longtime friend,” Bloomberg spokesman Howard Wolfson said by email.
Newsom had wealthy supporters, too. Three members of the Getty family, heirs to the Getty oil fortune, together gave $120,000 to an independent committee trying to elect him. Health insurer Blue Shield donated almost $1 million, and big money from organized labor rained down—including more than $4.7 million from unions representing teachers, nurses, firefighters, state workers and others.
The day after Newsom won, he was hitting up donors again, blasting out an email asking supporters to kick in 1,500 donations over the next 24 hours.