Ron DeSantis is failing when it comes to grassroots fundraising. The situation has gotten so bad that it’s possible the Florida governor might actually be losing money when it comes to courting small-dollar donors.
DeSantis’ team has tried to spin the situation as a positive. In a New York Times piece last week, his advisers argued that the campaign was making a strategic decision to avoid alienating rank-and-file supporters with the sorts of fake promises and alarmist or misleading email blasts that have become hallmarks of political fundraising. That strategy may be commendable, but it doesn’t seem to be working.
It’s hard to say exactly how many small donors DeSantis has—the definition of “small donor” is generally someone who gives less than $200, and campaigns aren’t required to say how many donors of that size they have or how much each of those donors gave. Campaigns simply have to report to the Federal Election Commission the total amount raised from all those small donors, combined. According to filings from DeSantis’ campaign on Saturday, the answer is: not much.
To be precise, it was $2,867,814.98, or about 15 percent of DeSantis’ overall fundraising haul for the second quarter of 2023. It’s hard to draw a comparison directly to Donald Trump’s second quarter numbers, because the former president utilized several complex fundraising vehicles. But Trump has previously broken records for a presidential candidate’s small-dollar fundraising—GOP small donors like him. Even Joe Biden, who has made little effort with grassroots contributors so far, raised $5.3 million from small donors.
While DeSantis’ grand total from all donations, including large ones—$19.7 million—isn’t terrible, the roughly $2.9 million he raised specifically from small donors comes with some red flags. First, it appears to be costing DeSantis a lot to raise that rather paltry sum. According to the same federal filings, his campaign spent:
- $926,000 on credit card processing fees, to WinRed, the online fundraising tool favored by GOP candidates
- $883,000 on digital fundraising
- $730,000 on direct mail
- $200,000 on SMS text messaging
While it is possible to attract large donations with the use of digital fundraising and online processing tools like WinRed—and some of that direct mail and text messaging might be aimed primarily at voter activation, rather than fundraising—the filings paint a picture of a campaign completely flailing when it comes to connecting with grassroots donors. In all, those expenses add up to $2.7 million, almost as much he raised from small donors—and that doesn’t include some other expenses associated with the campaign’s outreach to the little guy. For example, contact list rental and the time staff might be spending on small donors.
The fact that it’s hard to separate out exactly how much DeSantis spent on grassroots fundraising from how much he spent targeting voters points to another problem with the campaigns’ numbers: the two categories are often the same. Small donors, of course, are sought for the total amount of money they might be able to contribute—and it can be substantial—but donors giving small amounts is also considered a good sign of voter activation. If a donor has donated something—even a small amount—it’s often considered by campaigns a good sign that they’re making progress persuading future voters. And for DeSantis, that just doesn’t seem to be happening.