During his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders compiled a list of roughly 2.5 million people who donated more than $230 million to his campaign. The average contribution was only $27.
As Sanders begins his second presidential bid, he’s counting on this distinctive fundraising strategy to help him secure the 2020 nomination.
Sanders' campaign is already taking him to the early primary states — he’ll be holding major rallies throughout Iowa and will return to New Hampshire for an event Sunday in Concord.
He's also demonstrating financial strength behind the scenes. While his rivals for the Democratic nomination have been busy trying to build a base of supporters, Sanders quickly reactivated a fundraising operation that helped him win 23 primaries in 2016.
It’s already paid dividends: In the first week as an official candidate, Sanders raised roughly $10 million from more than 350,000 donors. None of the other candidates have come close to raising this much money at this stage of the campaign.
Josh Orton, an adviser on the Sanders campaign, said the initial numbers demonstrate that Sanders still has enormous support across the country.
"They're not just a snapshot of Bernie's current popularity or a snapshot of instant enthusiasm,” Orton said. “They represent the kind of infrastructure and the kind of long-term work the campaign can start doing."
But it’s not just how much money Sanders is raising that has impressed experts. It’s how he’s doing it that could provide a lasting advantage in a crowded field.
Sanders' campaign has implemented a system, much like Netflix and other internet subscription services, where supporters sign up to automatically make a contribution every month. It’s a way to build loyalty to the candidate and give the campaign a solid and recurring source of revenue.
UVM political science professor Ellen Andersen said this strategy is a key part of Sanders’ long-term financing plan.
"It's really brilliant,” Andersen said. "He can then plan on this increased support."
Campaign adviser Orton said these small donations are also the most effective way to challenge incumbent President Donald Trump, who Orton said relies on contributions from "Wall Street and the big money interests."
"We've seen that the only thing that can do that is a grassroots movement where people contribute these kind of small dollar contributions,” said Orton.
Professor Andersen said Sanders' early fundraising success also sends an important message to many of the other Democratic candidates.
"These sort of initial numbers are astounding,” said Andersen. “I don't think there's sort of anybody now who can say that he's not the man to beat, which is so different from what was happening in 2016."
But Norwich University political science professor Ted Kohn isn't convinced that Sanders can sustain this level of financial support in the months ahead.
He thinks Sanders’ fundraising totals might represent a lot of pent-up support for Sanders, rather than new broad national support.
Kohn also said fundraising totals aren't always the best indicator of the strength of a presidential campaign.
"Money isn't the answer to everything. Money isn't what's necessarily going to get you to break into the top three," Kohn said. "If whoever has the most money was the simple determinant of the primaries or of presidential elections I think we'd be sitting in the middle of Mitt Romney's second term."
But Kohn said Sanders' reliance on small contributions has already had an impact on this race because it's forced a number of other candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to reject fundraising events with large donors.
"It's a very interesting moment where Sen. Sanders has kind of pushed the conversation within the progressive base of the Democratic Party,” Kohn said.
In addition to his supporters who sign up for automatic donations, Sanders also has a substantial number of donors who make frequent contributions to the campaign, although not on an automatic basis. In some cases, they make a total of between five and 10 donations.
Former Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis said Sanders' mailing list of small donors will play a critical role in allowing Sanders to launch strong operations in multiple states at the outset of the campaign. That’s something Sanders was not able to do in 2016.
"He has a strong fundraising infrastructure in place — he has lots of email addresses and contacts from the 2016 campaign and can use those again,” Davis said. “If you start early and have a large donor base, it can be very successful."
The Sanders campaign said it’s encouraged that almost 40 percent of their 2020 donors to date are first-time contributors, indicating that there’s been a sizeable growth in support for Sanders’ candidacy.