So ends the biggest fundraising race in the world, and this year we have one clear, outright winner…
Congratulations, Hillary Clinton!
What’s interesting is that this election marks the first time in the modern era (2000 onwards) that a Presidential candidate has raised more than their opponent over the course of their campaign and still lost. For Clinton, the added salt in the wound is that she raised more than twice what her opponent Donald Trump did.
Strange, that a candidate could gather so much cash from her supporters, yet when the public was asked to put pen to paper she should come out bottom. Just what happened – and what can it tell us about fundraising?
Looking at donor motivation and fundraising strategy, we find a very simple answer to both questions: people had greater impetus to donate to Clinton, but total size of donations received was not representative of the voting population.
Before going into more detail, it will help to know the statistics that illustrate how successful each candidate was in their fundraising drive. Data is scant, but what we do have reveals a lot about both candidates with regards to funds raised and money spent.
These are the headlines:
Hillary Clinton (breakdown of campaign funds):
• Clinton raised around $680 million, falling $90 million short of Obama’s $770 million record.
• Roughly a quarter of Clinton’s funds came from Super PACs – individual, high-wealth donors who, in Clinton’s case, included Haim & Cheryl Saban, George Soros and Steven Spielberg.
Donald Trump (breakdown of campaign funds):
• Trump raised a little over $300 million, less than half of Clinton’s haul.
• Trump was his own biggest donor, investing $58 million (roughly 20% of his total raised) in his own campaign.
• Average donations to both candidates was around $50, though Clinton had to artificially lower her average gift down from $144 by asking for lots of $1 donations.
• Hillary was more frugal, choosing to spend 88% of her campaign earnings against Trump’s 93%. Nonetheless, this meant Clinton spent $300 million more than Trump.
• Both candidates spent the majority of their funds on media. But while Trump spent 27%, Clinton spent nearly double at 53%.
• Trump’s second biggest expense was online advertising, which made up 23% of his total spend. In comparison, Clinton spent an incredibly low 3% on digital, her fifth biggest expense.
• Clinton’s second biggest expense was payroll at 10%, indicative of her over-investment in an expensive campaign team. Payroll made up just 2% of Trump’s total expenditure, his ninth biggest expense.
• Interestingly, Trump’s fourth-biggest expense was marketing collateral – like his iconic ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps. Clinton’s spend on merchandise was negligible.
Interestingly, if the election was based on funds raised per state instead of votes, Hillary would have won many of the battleground states that eventually went her opponent, including Arkansas, Michigan and North Carolina.
Of course that wasn’t the case, but it does raise the question of how Hillary Clinton’s success in fundraising did not correlate with her success on voting day. I posit two reasons for this: donor motivation and fundraising strategy.
Three theories stand out to me as possible causes as to why Hillary Clinton’s income was both large and accrued at an incredible rate.
1. People donated to Hillary because they were scared of Donald Trump
Just one emotion encapsulated Trump’s rhetoric, and that was fear.
Those under direct fire from Trump (immigrants, Muslims and women to name but a few of his targets) found that their only outlet was outright hatred of the man . The New York Post reported in April 2016 that 70% of the country ‘hated’ Donald Trump – an incredible statistic in retrospect.
For these people, and others who simply couldn’t stomach the thought of Trump in the White House, his orations elicited a fight-or-flight response. With flight impossible (you can’t outrun the media) people instead turned to fighting. And what better way to fight back than to make a donation to the only person that could possibly beat Trump?
Donating to Hillary helped people feel like they were doing something to keep Trump out of the White House, abating (albeit briefly) their fear. Ultimately, it didn’t matter if Hillary’s donors liked her or not – even those who didn’t had to acquiesce that she was the only alternative.
On the other hand, for those who genuinely supported her…
2. People donated to Hillary because they shared her views (and had the money to show for it)
Hillary’s campaign was notable for being much further left than previous Democratic campaigns, no doubt a strategic move on Clinton’s part after seeing the incredible support for Bernie Sanders in the Primaries.
This established for Clinton a platform that was in direct contradiction to Trump’s populist and isolationist ideology. Where Trump wanted to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the U.S., Clinton wanted to pass an immigration reform. Where Trump wanted to repeal Obamacare, Clinton wanted to protect and develop it. Where Trump boasted of groping women and wanted abortion to be punished, Clinton wanted to close the gender pay gap.
Hillary’s policies were designed to appeal to progressives and liberals, in particular the urban middle classes, for whom she promised a freeze on tax hikes. It was very easy for these people to embrace Hillary’s worldview: they too wanted better prospects for women and minorities, more opportunities to collaborate with the rest of the world and more security for their own families – and of course the best way for people to show their affiliation with Clinton’s views was with a donation.
It says a lot that Hillary’s average donations were, in the early months of her campaign, much higher than Donald Trump’s (even without her Super PAC contributions). By appealing to well-to-do liberals, such as nouveau-riche Silicon Valley millennials, career women and academics, Hillary staked her claim to American donors with a higher disposable income and a greater propensity to giving.
3. People donated to Hillary because they felt sorry for her
Despite how he liked to label himself, Donald Trump was not the victim of the media, but the chief benefactor, to the tune of some $2–3 billion. Sure, he was lampooned and lambasted, but as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. On TV, radio, in the newspapers and online, Donald Trump dominated the headlines.
Google Trends illustrates how Donald Trump dominated the battle for attention. This chart, which shows global search interest for the two candidates beginning at the end of the Primaries and lasting to the final week of campaigning, shows Trump was almost constantly in the limelight.
This explains why Clinton’s media spend was significantly higher than Trump’s. As her opponent’s incendiary policies and regular outbursts won him endless column inches, Clinton was forced to spend big on media to get the same kind of attention. When Trump hit the headlines, Clinton had to pay to put an ad in the same paper. When Trump gave another outrageous TV interview, Clinton had to pay to air an ad on the same channel. In the race for attention, Hillary was stranded in second place.
Clinton’s supporters knew this, and so knew that every penny they donated would help to give their candidate a little more of the spotlight. If earned media wasn’t on Clinton’s side, paid media would have to be. Make no mistake, these donations came from desperation, not from a desire to see more of Clinton’s tame and banal (at least relative to Trump’s) TV ads.
So a donation to Hillary Clinton had numerous payoffs. It was a form of protest against perceived toxic policies, a personal statement, a way of relieving fear and a middle finger to the ‘unjust’ Donald Trump. Donor motivation was very well considered, and expertly played on, but this only made up half the reason for Clinton’s fundraising success.
The rest was…
The first notable difference between Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s fundraising strategies was the frequency of their asks. While Trump was relaxed, only ramping up his activity at key times (he was a billionaire businessman after all – why would he need to ask for so many donations?), Clinton took an always-on approach. Her email asks were much more frequent and urgent than her opponent’s (N.B. too frequent for some commentators).
In relation to fear, these regular calls to donate acted as a stress ball for donors. Every donation was a little more tension relieved, a little more hope for a future without Donald Trump. Clinton even lowballed donors with small asks, knowing every click of her “Donate” button was another little load off (one illustration of this is that the asks on Clinton’s fundraising landing page ranged from $5 to $250, while Trump’s were between $35 and $2,700).
Clinton wasn’t afraid to incite her own fear either. ‘He may still beat me’ read the headline for one Clinton email. ‘We might not win’ said another. ‘I’m not kidding’, ‘down in the polls’, ‘what are we going to do?’ Clinton’s email subject lines reeked of desperation, yet followed the emotionally provocative trend started by Obama. On the other hand, her email copy – which in one case read to the tune of ‘the unfortunate reality we must confront is that he still might be able to win if he spends enough to convince voters’ – went straight for the financial jugular.
So much of Clinton’s strategy seemed to depend on the nation’s disdain for Donald Trump. This made Hillary out to be the safe, inoffensive, tried-and-tested option, the antithesis to Trump’s outrageous and potentially dangerous policies. Donating to Clinton was branded less of a risk.
Regular, frequent, low asks, tough messaging and a laser focus on an icon of hatred: Clinton’s campaign was harsh, divisive, persistent but, ultimately, very finely tuned for fundraising.
But as we know, even the best fundraising strategy won’t guarantee you the Presidency.
Election Day came and Clinton, as democrats usually do, cruised to victory in wealthy coastal states such as New York and California but, elsewhere, something unexpected happened. Trump got a clear victory in many battleground states, notably in the Rest Belt.
What had emerged from the 2016 election was a picture of the growing discrepancy between wealthy liberals at the forefront of American industry, such as in Silicon Valley and New York City, and Americans on the breadline, victims of a failed industrial and agricultural system.
The latter, many of whom live in poverty, were never the primary audience for either party’s campaign fundraising. But certainly one candidate – one who wanted to call himself the ‘best jobs President of all time’ – made sure these people were at the heart of his communications. If he could include a small ask in one of his few, empathetic emails, then why not? But of course Trump didn’t need the money. His media came free, and the rest he paid for from his own, deep pockets. Perhaps it was destined for Hillary Clinton to win the fundraising race.
From Clinton’s victory, we can learn many things – simple though they might be – to help us with our own fundraising.
So I’ll leave you with you with my top five lessons from the 2016 Presidential campaign. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading.
• If you know your audience is afraid of something, capture the essence of that fear and use it as a force for positive change.
• Lay your views, values and beliefs out for everyone to see. Even if people don’t believe in you, they may still believe in your vision.
• If you’re not raising enough funds, be transparent about the fact. There’s no harm in playing up to your role as the plucky underdog.
• When it comes to asks, don’t be afraid to go low. If clicking your donate button helps donors relieve some tension, they might be inclined to give low amounts several times.
• Don’t get lost in fundraising. Remember you represent an organisation with a mission. Stay true to that aim – or risk having a lot of money, and nothing to spend it on.