How a team of Obama veterans helped Bernie Sanders pull in a record number of donations

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·National Correspondent, Technology
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Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass. (Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP).

On the last Tuesday in September, an important deadline loomed for the men and women who would be president. The Federal Election Commission requires those running for office to report how much their campaigns have raised each quarter, and the last-minute fundraising appeals that ensue often reach a dramatic pitch as politicians seek to raise a figure that proves they have staying power.

Starting at about 9:30 p.m. that evening, online donations through Sen. Bernie Sanders’s website, store and the ActBlue fundraising site reached the phenomenal clip of about two contributions per second. They stayed at that high and steady pace until the clock struck midnight. When all was said and done, online fundraising efforts like this helped the campaign raise a whopping $26 million for the quarter — just $2 million fewer than Democratic primary frontrunner and establishment favorite Hillary Clinton.

Sanders also reported more than 1 million contributions — more even than Barack Obama had pulled in during the early part of his groundbreaking 2008 presidential run. It was a major milestone for the Vermont senator’s Cinderella story campaign, proving he has both the voter base and the financial wherewithal to compete with Clinton.

If Sanders’s record-setting number of donors served as a wake-up call to establishment Democrats about the strength of the insurgent Sanders campaign, it was no surprise to those inside his operation.

Since May, a small guerilla-marketing team whose members have been part of some of the most successful insurgent campaigns in the Democratic Party have been working to translate grassroots enthusiasm for Sanders into dollars.

At its helm is Scott Goodstein, a former music marketer who made a living hyping bands like Korn prior to his political career. In 2007, after “drinking beers and talking” with Obama’s main digital strategist at the time, he and his friend, videographer Arun Chaudhary, were hired by the famously innovative campaign to help create a groundswell of support online and in local communities.

In 2009, after Obama’s election, Goodstein took everything he learned from the campaign and launched Revolution Messaging, bringing on a “lean-and-mean” group of digital marketing veterans to help. Tim Tagaris, who cut his teeth on Sen. Chris Murphy’s successful campaign against Republican Linda McMahon, and on Ned Lamont’s netroots-fueled fight against one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee and incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, came on as a partner. He hired Michael Whitney, who had worked for Howard Dean’s pioneering 2004 presidential campaign as well as the cause-and-petitions site Change.org. Chaudhary joined up after leaving the White House, where he had been Obama’s first videographer.

Since July, Revolution Messaging has been tasked with overseeing social media, online fundraising, web design and digital advertising for Sanders, sending a steady stream of text messages, emails and issue-based ads urging supporters to donate or volunteer. The team also nurtures and helps grow the communities on Sanders’s already popular Facebook and Reddit pages.

“After seeing the immediate response the first few hours after [Sanders] said that he was running for president, nothing would surprise me,” Tagaris, who heads up the email fundraising team for Sanders, told Yahoo News after the third quarter fundraising numbers were revealed.

The effort is not all that different from the scrappy, ultra-efficient operation that Goodstein and many members of his current workforce ran for Obama’s campaign in 2008. But to equate the two campaigns is to overlook both the way Internet use has evolved over the past eight years, and the unique personality of Sanders as a candidate.

Since the 2008 election, the economy has migrated to Internet-based services, the mobile industry has exploded and a generation of young people weaned on the art of personal branding is more skeptical of pandering than ever. It’s these pivotal changes in the digital world and the people who live in it that explain Sanders’s appeal and the passionate response his campaign has been enjoying.

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Sanders greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally. (Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP).

Goodstein recalls that when he joined Obama’s campaign in January 2007, the iPhone had not yet been released and text messaging was still something people labored over on their flip phones. Now, he says, more people are comfortable donating money online, ad gateways have become more sophisticated and news breaks much quicker. Even organizing large rallies has become cheaper and easier to do on the fly.

“It’s a different world,” he told Yahoo News. “We’re excited that we achieved the millionth contribution a lot quicker [than with the Obama campaign], but it’s also because the Internet has grown up.”

For Sanders, the high number of donations thus far can be credited to a support base that’s deeply engaged in specific issues — especially the influence of what he so disdainfully refers to as “the billionaire class.” It’s also come from seizing smart opportunities for fundraising. When on two occasions super-PACs representing fellow Democratic contenders Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton used negative tactics against Sanders, Goodstein’s team acted swiftly to launch targeted web ads and send out emails to the campaign’s master contact list, imploring subscribers to contribute to prevent the wealthy from influencing the election. When the O’Malley-connected super-PAC first ran a YouTube ad criticizing Sanders in March, the campaign raised much more than it usually did in a normal week. And when the Huffington Post reported that a Clinton-connected super-PAC had been circulating negative emails about Sanders, his campaign raised a record-breaking $1.2 million in less than 48 hours.

“None of this stuff works if there isn’t that energy out there,” Goodstein said. “Clearly people are fired up on these issues, and my team’s doing a good job of smartly figuring out how to harness that energy and make sure that you have the opportunity to engage in a positive way.”

But the steadfast support for Sanders’s campaign is not just derived from frustration with the electoral meddling of elite donors and billionaires. According to Whitney, who heads the company’s email fundraising with Tagaris, email solicitations have been responsible for a significant portion of Sanders’s donations. The loyalty established among the campaign’s followers, he says, is due to their willingness to learn about the policies that are central to the election, and parse through emails from Sanders that are sometimes as long as 2,000 words. These messages address both newsworthy events like the pope’s visit, and issues that Sanders feels passionate about, such as prescription drug reform, or student debt. In the latter email, the staff asked subscribers to reply with what it would mean to them to have no tuition debt, and then re-circulated some of the answers it got to the same list. Sometimes the emails are targeted and include fundraising appeals, but sometimes they are just about messaging and connecting.

“People really feel ownership of this campaign,” Whitney said. “The language that Senator Sanders uses shows everyone is a part of this, and that really encourages people to chip in.”

Goodstein, who enlisted artist Shepard Fairey to create the iconic blue-and-red “Hope” posters for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, has embraced the idea of collaboration. He’s put some members of Sanders’s Reddit page to work coding special projects. And in late September, he posted a list of famous actors, musicians and other creatives who have publicly backed Bernie.

“We’re looking to put everybody to work,” Goodstein said. “So if you don’t have a thousand dollars, what kind of craft or skill can you donate?”

Perhaps the paramount asset in Sanders’s successful digital campaign is the consistent presence of the candidate himself. His unmistakable persona, along with his unkempt hair and heavy Brooklyn accent, remain a point of attraction to many voters who distrust an overly groomed political class. Former White House aide Chaudhary, for his part, is now doing shareable Bernie vérité videos that highlight these characteristics for social distribution.

“The real innovation here is the authenticity, and the willingness to speak at length about the issues that people are facing every day,” Tagaris said. “Treating people with that kind of respect has really yielded a tremendous response for the senator.”

Despite the amount of money the Sanders campaign has raised thus far, the candidate still faces a number of financial obstacles. According to Richard Hassen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of Irvine’s law school, Sanders’s sizeable support from small donors does not necessarily mean he’ll be successful in the primaries.

“There are some candidates that tend to attract more broad-based support than others,” Hassen told Yahoo News “Barack Obama did it, Howard Dean did it, Ron Paul did it and Ted Cruz has that going on. But having that base does not guarantee success, as Howard Dean can tell you.”

Because Clinton has the advantageous support of super-PACs, which are less beholden to donation limits, she’s also able to spend a much higher fraction of her donations than Sanders. According to the New York Times, Clinton has spent 90 percent of the $28 million she raised for her campaign between April and July. Sanders, by comparison, has spent an estimated $15 million, mostly on his online fundraising operation and hiring staff. Stephen Spaulding, a senior policy adviser at the nonprofit organization Common Cause, says we’ve yet to see the effects of super-PAC donations in the 2016 race.

“This is the second presidential election post-Citizens United,” he told Yahoo News. “We’re going to see even more outside money, and candidates that are relying on small donors need to build up a defense against this big money. I’m sure they’re planning for those anonymous attack ads from super-PACs that’ll be headed their way.”

Rest assured that Goodstein already has a cache of emails and targeted ads queued up for the next one, ready to mobilize the Sanders base to fight back.

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