Addicted to Making Campaign Contributions?

Bernie Sanders asked donors to give, and his most loyal donors dug deep each time—giving more than some could afford, or the law allowed.

John Minchillo / AP

Updated on August 30 at 10:28 a.m.

When Bernie Sanders asked for money to fuel his underdog presidential campaign, Geraldine Bryant didn’t even need to think about it.

“I loved Bernie, and every time he asked for money, I just gave it to him,” Bryant told me in a recent phone interview. A filmmaker in Manhattan, Bryant gave the Sanders campaign 44 separate contributions over a nine-month period between October and June, in amounts ranging from $1 to $2,000. The donations totaled $14,440—more than five times the legal limit that an individual can give to a presidential primary campaign.

Lorraine Grace, an environmentalist and educator who runs a nonprofit organization north of San Francisco, gave the Sanders campaign 17 contributions during the height of the Democratic primary between December and May, in amounts ranging from $15 to $2,000. It added up to $8,625. “I donate almost like automatic,” Grace explained. “Bernie Sanders’ campaign reaches out to me? Bingo. Donation.”

Bryant and Grace epitomize the fund-raising juggernaut that Sanders built virtually from scratch in 2015, allowing a small-state senator with little national following and a non-existent donor base to match Hillary Clinton dollar-for-dollar through much of their hard-fought Democratic primary. Sanders raised $231 million from more than 2.7 million donors, relying on grassroots support rather than the wealthy bundlers who collect large checks for establishment candidates.

But the constant fundraising requests that produced that shower of cash can be troubling in their own way. They’re reminiscent of the marketing strategies used by casinos, tobacco companies, and even “the old Nigerian scams,” said Timothy Fong, co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at UCLA. The solicitations convey “a sense of urgency, the very impulsive, it’s an opportunity that can’t be missed,” he said. “It’s very similar to what drug dealers use or casinos use to get people to continue to play.”

Campaign-finance reformers have generally lauded the way candidates like Sanders raise money in comparison to more traditional big-money contenders like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. It is, they argue, simply a purer, less conflicted way of funding a campaign. By collecting donations from millions of people in modest amounts, Sanders—and Barack Obama and Howard Dean before him—can demonstrate that he has a deep base of support and isn’t reliant on rich benefactors who make large donations for the privilege of hobnobbing with him, and potentially bending his ear for favors, at a lavish fund-raising reception.

Another benefit of relying on small donations from a large number of backers is that the campaign can go back to them again and again over the course of a campaign before they hit the $2,700 limit for individual contributions. And the Sanders campaign, like virtually all campaigns in the modern era, did so repeatedly, sending a near-constant barrage of urgent pleas for donations in email blasts to its supporters. Sanders himself added to these requests in speeches after primary-night victories and defeats, touting the millions of supporters who gave an average of $27 and asking them to go back to his website to give more.

And if the Sanders campaign and its predecessors resembled a casino trying to turn its first-time customers into regulars, then supporters like Bryant and Grace are its slot-machine donors. They responded to the campaign’s pleas nearly every time. And like more than 1,500 other Sanders contributors, they gave not only generously but excessively; their total donations blew past the $2,700 federal limit for a primary campaign. I reported on this phenomenon back in May, pointing out that while most successful campaigns have donors that give too much, the overeager contingent of Sanders supporters appears to be unprecedented in size.

The excessive donations clearly highlight just how devoted some of Sanders’ fans were to his presidential bid. But they also point to flaws in how the Sanders campaign managed and communicated with his most passionate supporters. Many of his donors were simply unaware of the federal limits, or if they were aware, they assumed the Sanders campaign would prevent them from contributing too much. It didn’t. The Sanders website made it incredibly easy to send money online with just a few clicks, but it made little effort to track how much its supporters were giving or inform them of the cap. (This lack of oversight also led to one donor being able to buy more than $10,000 worth of Sanders merchandise and selling it online, as I reported last week.)

Carl Wurtz, a web developer from Southern California, contributed $7,213 during the primary. “To tell you the truth, I was not keeping track,” he said. “That’s why I kept giving. I really didn’t realize I had given as much as I had. I thought it would probably tell me I’m over the $2,700, but they didn’t stop me.”

As I wrote in May, the fact that Sanders had so many excess donations is in part due to a compliance system that was designed with more professional, big-money campaigns in mind. Experienced fund-raisers and donors “max out” by writing one or two large checks for $2,700 for the primary and general elections, and those big donations are easy for campaigns to track and report. But when the average donation is just $27 and the campaigns try to hit up their supporters again and again, the process for reporting it all becomes much more complicated.

The FEC requires that campaigns send refunds for any donation in excess of the legal limit within 60 days, and according to its federal filings, the Sanders campaign has issued more than $5 million in refunds. But several of the largest “over donors” to Sanders said they never received checks the campaign reported that it sent to them late in the spring, in some cases for several thousand dollars. “Are you kidding me? I barely even received a thank you from the campaign,” said Annamarie Weaver of Chicago when I informed her that, according to records on the FEC website, the Sanders campaign had issued her a refund of $3,617 on May 1 and another one for $500 on May 31. “That’s complete bullshit.”

“I did not expect to receive a check, and I have not received a check,” Weaver said.

(After the publication of this article, Bryant called to say that she received a check for $10,000 on Monday, several days after I forwarded names of donors who said they had not received refunds from the Sanders campaign.)

Donors like Grace, Weaver, and Wurtz gave repeatedly, even compulsively, to the Sanders campaign because they believed in him and because they could. While they said they wouldn’t turn down refunds that are owed to them, the only regrets they offered about their many contributions were that their candidate didn’t win. “I’m glad I donated that much and I would do it again,” Wurtz said. “And I’m upset that Hillary rigged the Democratic primary, because I think all the people that contributed to Bernie were ripped off.”

But at least one “over donor” had second thoughts about giving so often, and so much, to Sanders. After reading my earlier report on the overeager Sanders supporters, she emailed me to say that despite trying to contact the campaign multiple times, she hadn’t received any of the thousands of dollars the campaign owed her in refunds after she made more than 70 separate contributions totaling more than $5,000. She said she never received more than an automated response, and that she never got the refunds that the campaign reported sending her.

This donor, who has several college-age children, asked that her name be withheld because she gets financial assistance from relatives who are conservative and would not be happy to find out she contributed to the Sanders campaign.

“There are a ton of things I could do with the roughly $2,000 I donated to Bernie (unwittingly over the limit),” she wrote in an email. “In my case, having literally never before donated anything to any political campaign, I, obviously wrongly, thought that the system would 'shut me off' electronically when I reached the limit; and I was only vaguely aware of the limit anyway.”

“My philosophy was that if I got an email that said, ‘something happened, show your support.’ Send a donation,” the donor said in a subsequent interview.

Campaigns have the obligation, under FEC rules, to refund donations that exceed federal donor limits. But what responsibility, if any, do campaigns have to make sure that their most passionate supporters adhere to the caps in the first place, not only to ensure they follow the law but also to prevent them from giving more than they can afford? Campaign solicitations these days are unyielding and increasingly urgent, with email subject lines dramatizing minor and major developments alike to jolt supporters into giving more money. Recipients can respond with a credit-card donation in just a few clicks—far less time than it would take to write out a check in response to a solicitation that arrived in the mail.

The Sanders campaign in particular relied on many people who had never before made political contributions. And unlike professional fund-raising networks that target people who the campaign knows have the ability to give large amounts, the same money requests go to anyone with an email address in their system. “I think it’s a gray area,” Fong said. “Anytime you combine passions and emotions and all of these things, that’s when people’s judgment ultimately get skewed,” he added. “That’s why people start doing things against their better judgment.”

As for the refunds, the Sanders campaign says it has issued more than $5 million worth, but it’s clear that much of it has not gotten back to the donors. After the anonymous donor wrote to tell me that she had not received any refunds from the Sanders campaign despite having given thousands of dollars over the limit, I reached out to several of the largest “over-donors” listed in the FEC database. Of nine who responded, just one said she had received a refund from the campaign. A couple said it was possible that they missed checks that could have come in the mail, thinking they were solicitations rather than refunds. But most of them said they were sure they never got money back, either by check or through a refund to their credit card.

“I certainly didn’t cash it. Let me tell you, I would remember that,” said Laurie Lee, a nurse practitioner in Boulder, Colorado. She said she was unaware of the donation limit and that “if that’s the rule, I wouldn’t mind getting the refund.”

But, Lee added, “If it is coming out of his own pocket, I don’t want it.” The Sanders campaign had more than $6 million left in its account at the end of July, so the Vermont senator would not be issuing refunds personally.

Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said the campaign issues refunds by check, through a donor’s credit card, or through ActBlue, the progressive online fund-raising firm that processed the Sanders campaign donations. (Like the campaign itself, ActBlue only prevents donors from contributing too much in a single transaction, not over repeated contributions during the course of a campaign.) “We have had a number of refunds returned for problem addresses. We re-send when they come back,” Briggs said.

Citing the example of the Obama campaign in 2008, he said it was “not abnormal” for a campaign to have to issue a lot of refunds for excessive donations. But while the Obama campaign sent back more than $5 million in total during the 2008 race, it had only refunded $1.5 million through the end of July; the Sanders has already sent back more than $5 million. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, has refunded $3.4 million to its contributors so far.

The Sanders donors I interviewed were not necessarily representative of the 2.7 million people who gave to the senator’s campaign over the last year. These people contributed more than just about anyone else, and by and large, they did so without remorse or harm to their financial position. But what about the thousands of other Sanders donors who clicked ‘Donate’ over and over again, who may have stretched their more limited dollars much further in support of a candidate who asked for their urgent help so often? Was the campaign taking advantage of its most passionate backers?

To Fong, the answer was not so clear-cut. The top priority for a campaign raising money, he said, has to be to follow “the letter of the law.” But that is not its only responsibility, he said. “Number two, I think it has to be within the spirit of the campaign,” Fong added. “Staying consistent with what the message of the campaign is all about.”

It’s a warning that should resonate with any campaign that asks its supporters for money without giving it a second thought—not only those like the Sanders operation that are now struggling to refund millions of dollars they should never have collected.