Home / TOPICS / Geopolitics / Hillary Clinton’s big-money dilemma: How the Clinton campaign’s go-small political message is butting up against 2016’s big bucks reality?
Democratic Presidential hopeful and former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton participates in a small business roundtable discussion with members of the small business community at Capital City Fruit on April 15, 2015 in Norwalk, Iowa. Mrs. Clinton has spent the last two days in Iowa to focus on smaller communities in Iowa and have discussions about how to make the economy work for everyday Americans. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton’s big-money dilemma: How the Clinton campaign’s go-small political message is butting up against 2016’s big bucks reality?

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By Glenn Thrush and Anna Palmer

There is a growing realization inside Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters and among the wider circle of Democratic operatives that coming up with the requisite $1 billion to $2.5 billion in campaign and super PAC cash for the 2016 campaign will be a lot tougher than anticipated — and demands a more aggressive approach to out-of-the-gate fundraising.

The pace of donations to Clinton’s three-week-old campaign is surpassing forecasts — but the candidate herself wants to accelerate the timetable and just added several new New York City fundraisers to her May schedule, people close to Clinton tell POLITICO.

Democratic operatives and fundraisers in contact with the campaign cite an array of concerns about the deliberately slow ramp-up to date. There are worries about the willingness of big progressive donors to commit to Clinton before the general election and the campaign’s focus on mid-sized donations. The lack of high-impact hires on the finance team have raised eyebrows. Then there is the general unease about the ability of the party’s pro-Clinton super PAC to compete with Republican counterparts that will raise hundreds of millions in mega-contributions.

Over it all looms a larger problem – the optics. Barack Obama’s huge haul in the first half of 2007 overshadowed Clinton’s solid fundraising numbers and shattered her façade of inevitability. The 2016 campaign’s decision to solicit only primary election contributions fits the campaign’s work-for-every vote ethos, but it’s left some donors reluctant to contribute to a race that seems so one-sided already. That means her first campaign finance report — likely due in late July — will fall far short of Jeb Bush, who is expected to raise a jarring $100 million in just the first three months of his unofficial campaign

“The expectations have always been too high, it’s Hillary so everybody expects her to just rake in the money and that was never going to happen,” said a veteran Democratic fundraiser who raised $1 million for President Obama but is adopting a wait-and-see-approach before helping out Clinton. “My feeling is that 2015 will be hard, but that things will pick up once we get into 2016. It’s not a bad situation, but people have to realize we’re in for a long, slow process.”

A Clinton spokesperson said the methodical build-up isn’t a sign of weakness, but a commitment to creating a system that creates a bigger, broader base of contributors. “Big donors are welcome but with the current finance limits we are better off expanding the donor base and bringing new people in, and it is smarter to bring those new people in May of 2015 than October of 2016,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Clinton herself echoed some of those concerns this week when she threw herself onto the fundraising circuit in New York, Washington and California, weeks before she had planned to, in an effort to jump-start the campaign’s fundraising – the better to compete with Bush’s fundraising juggernaut. “I need to get out there earlier,” she told an aide recently.

Clinton has already agreed to appear at two or three additional events in New York the week of May 13th, a senior Democrat familiar with the planning told POLITICO.

And she isn’t the only Clinton expected to hit the cash trail – two people close to the situation said they expected Bill Clinton to attend fundraisers, most likely for the super PAC Priorities USA Action, which is hoping to raise a minimum of $150 million and as much as $300 million in the 2016 cycle.


Under executive director Buffy Wicks and longtime Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, Priorities is recruiting a new team of well-connected fundraisers – including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s former adviser and veteran fundraiser Brian Wolff – and streamlining its internal financial procedures to increase transparency after a nasty internal spat spilled into public view earlier this year.

In a shake-up, board chairman Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, is being moved to an advisory role — and longtime Clinton adviser Guy Cecil will adopt a major role in the super PAC, according to sources familiar with the situation. The moves were first reported in the Washington Post.

In February, POLITICO’s Kenneth P. Vogel reported that the group was struggling to come up with 30 or more pledges of at least $1 million apiece to be unveiled when Clinton formally jumped into the race; to date, they have only secured five million-dollar commitments and a handful of smaller donations, according to a source with knowledge of the organization’s finances.

And some of Clinton’s leading donors aren’t committing, including hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry, who set out to raise $270,000 for Clinton’s campaign in its first week. But when he was approached recently about writing a big check to Priorities, he did not immediately commit, instead explaining he’d think about it, according to sources familiar with the group’s fundraising.

Priorities’ struggles have stoked serious concerns among many Clinton aides, especially from Charlie Baker, a former Priorities board member who stepped down to work on the campaign.

Wicks and other Priorities representatives, including veteran Clinton adviser Paul Begala, are hoping to change that – and will be meeting in small groups with donors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York over the next few weeks to recruit more contributors. “We’ll see what the appetite out there is,” said one senior Democratic fundraiser.

The first round of fundraisers hosted by Clinton’s own campaign finance team were intentionally small, in keeping with the low-key approach to the kick-off. But organizers of the California events — in which bundlers are encouraged to collect the $2,700 maximum individual primary contributions from ten people — said they are meeting expectations.

“All three events will be at capacity. But the singular thing that is happening here is not only are people contributing but everyone is raising,” says Andy Spahn, a veteran Democratic fundraiser with deep connections in Hollywood. “I am making calls for contributions and the only “no’s” I get are from people who are saying, ‘I’m trying to raise ten checks too.’”

Insiders expressed confidence in Dennis Cheng, the campaign’s relatively unknown campaign finance director, whose selection was seen as a signal the campaign was avoiding another mistake of ’08: The empowering of celebrity donors who crowded out the younger, more aggressive bundlers who helped power Barack Obama’s money machine.

Yet in recent days, as Clinton has assessed her daunting challenge, it’s become clear that the force behind the fundraising operation is campaign chairman John Podesta, who has been quietly cultivating big donors and coordinating fundraising strategy.

Podesta, people close to the campaign say, supports the Cheng-led strategy of creating an army of small- to medium-scale campaign bundlers – a “flat” fundraising structure that would give donors the sense of ownership in the campaign. Podesta jokingly refers to himself as the “Sultan of Flat,” but more than a dozen older generation Clinton fundraisers and donors interviewed over the past two weeks said they believed the new structure would eventually give way to a more conventional fundraising apparatus that would empower mega-donors on the coasts.

Managing the friction between the old lions of Clinton fundraising – who have no use for the flat organizational chart — and the younger players Cheng hopes to recruit, won’t be easy. Cheng recently angered several former Obama fundraisers by offering them their old regional finance jobs – even though they had gone onto to bigger, more lucrative careers in Washington over the years; they turned him down, according to a former Obama campaign official. The campaign’s low pay, and the rule that fundraisers must cut ties to other clients, have also been an impediment to getting top-level fundraisers to sign on in key money states like California and New York.

Meanwhile, there’s been concern in Democratic finance circles that some of the operatives selected to head regional fundraising efforts are not ready for the big leagues of presidential fundraising.

The regional finance directors’ efforts to recruit new bundlers are also being stymied by a perception that the Clinton’s fundraising circle is so well-established that it’s tough for anyone new to break through.

Cheng, for his part, has also been trying to reassure Obama bundlers and even former lower level Clinton administration aides, who have now gone on to successful careers, that they won’t be marginalized. “Their sense is that unless they raise zillions of dollars, they’re never going to be noticed and certainly never going to infiltrate their already tight-knit inner circle, so why bother,” one New York-based fundraiser said. “Everyone knows who Clinton’s inner circle is, that they are going to raise a boat load of money with relatively little effort, and that there is little that can be done by a new person to make their mark.”

Even Washington events like the one campaign chairman Podesta and campaign manager Robby Mook did last week in D.C. have drawn criticism for being a little too old-boys-club-ish, including one hosted by Bill Clinton’s close friend Vernon Jordan. Meanwhile, other major donors are complaining about being asked to give early and often to Clinton toward the 2016 primary – and not the far more competitive general election. One veteran Democratic operative said that’s where they had heard the most complaining.

Another major question that remains unanswered: When will Clinton create a joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee, which would allow her to ask for $35,000 from individuals?

In the meantime, as Clinton and her team fine-tune their strategy, a key critic on the left was peppering her campaign with questions about her family’s charitable and political fundraising practices.

“So do I have concerns about the Clinton Foundation and that money? I do,” newly announced Clinton primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders told ABC on Thursday. “But I am concerned about Sheldon Adelson and his billions. I’m concerned about the Koch brothers and their billions. We’re looking at a system where our democracy is being owned by a handful of billionaires.”

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to this report.