Catch me if you can.

Saul Loeb/AFP

Republicans Play Catch-Up to Clinton Grass Roots

Jeanne Cummings writes on money, lobbying and politics. As political editor for Bloomberg News, she directed coverage of the 2012 and 2014 elections. The 2016 race marks her seventh presidential campaign.
Read More.
a | A

Hillary Clinton just announced an ambitious 50-state grass-roots organizing plan. It's not surprising. President Barack Obama's e-mail list of 13 million supporters was viewed as a key to his reelection in 2012, producing volunteers, donations and the grass-roots energy vital to a national campaign.

Republicans, too, noticed it. In a postmortem on the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee wrote: "Campaigns and Elections magazine reported that an 'active email list is a gift that keeps on giving.' We agree," the RNC leaders concluded.

What's less clear is whether Republican candidates will be positioned to achieve similar success. The party's White House contenders, from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, talk of making appeals to small donors and activists. Their goals, however, could be undermined by a more pressing demand for big-dollar contributions.

Several viable candidates -- including Jeb Bush and Walker -- have yet to officially announce a campaign, even though January of the year prior to an election is a typical start time. Each month that a candidate delays announcing is a month's delay in assembling a grass-roots organization.

Nicco Mele, a data expert who helped build former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's online database in the 2004 Democratic primary, said a candidate should have an e-mail list of at least 1 million supporters, and preferably 3 million, by next January to mobilize supporters and generate a steady flow of small donations. In addition to serving as a foundation for grass-roots activism, a small-donor base on the Internet can generate millions in aggregate donations while requiring no attention from the candidate.

Clinton is expected to inherit a ready-made e-mail list of 4 million supporters, created over the past two years by an allied super-PAC, Ready for Hillary. It took Ready for Hillary about eight months to gather its first million names, a task on which its staff was exclusively focused. The Iowa caucuses are about eight months away.

Bush, who hasn't run for office in more than a decade, has focused on collecting big checks for a super-PAC. The Associated Press reported that he is even considering relegating the compilation of an email list to the super-PAC.

Other Republicans have clearer grass-roots strengths. Between 2009 and 2014, 43 percent of the donations to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and his leadership political action committee came from small donors -- at least 30,000 of them, according to data at the Center for Responsive Politics. The Kentucky senator has also been appearing on college campuses, a prime recruitment venue. Cruz's campaign announced that he had raised $4 million in the eight days after his campaign announcement. About 95 percent of that arrived in small checks averaging $83, his staff said. That translates into roughly 48,000 contributors.

Walker showed small-donor appeal during his 2012 recall election, although his contribution list was most notable the many Republican millionaires and billionaires on it, including Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson. Two months before the recall election, three quarters of the $25 million Walker had raised came from donations of $50 or less, mostly from out of state.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, said in an e-mail that the late start, driven in part by the desire to collect super-PAC checks, which candidates are prohibited from soliciting once they have officially announced a candidacy, could tip the scales to candidates such as Paul, who "already have an appeal and organization foundation" in early primary states.

Tracy Sefl, a senior adviser to Ready for Hillary, said Clinton starts her campaign with "thousands" of organized backers in Iowa alone. Sefl said the super-PAC employed 30 full-time field operatives who worked for almost two years to boost enthusiasm for Clinton's candidacy and build the list.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at