For the 23 people now running for president as Democrats, there are good days and bad days. But, most important, there are big days. The days that keep the lights on. The days that fundamentally alter one’s trajectory. And these days often played out on television, and then reverberated on social media, showcasing how viral moments are so often driving donations and the race writ large.
To pinpoint those moments, The New York Times analyzed 5.8 million donations, melding together election filings from all the candidates and ActBlue, the party’s dominant donation-processing platform.
The analysis shows the dizzying climb of Pete Buttigieg (from 25 donations in a day to nearly $25 million in a quarter), the precipitous plunge of Beto O’Rourke (more donations in his first 48 hours than his next 2,500) and the steady metronome of Bernie Sanders (never less than 1,000 donations in a day). For some candidates, like Joseph R. Biden Jr., their strongest day for fund-raising was their first, and for others, like Elizabeth Warren, their best day came last, when she scored her first $1 million day on June 30.
Taken together, the donation data, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the money raised, paints a vivid portrait of a volatile primary’s ups and downs, a day-by-day, dollar-by-dollar reconstruction of the first six months of the 2020 Democratic primary, telling the story of who the front-runners are and how they emerged.
Julia Rosen, a Democratic digital strategist who previously worked for ActBlue, where she had access to such data, called it the “God-view” of modern campaigns.
“You can see everything,” she said.
The day Kamala Harris said, ‘That little girl was me’
Kamala Harris was losing altitude, but even she did not know the extent of it. Few did, beyond her innermost circle with access to a digital dashboard that revealed the shrinking daily intake of dollars.
The California Democrat had burst into the 2020 race with 38,000 donors and $1.5 million in her first 24 hours. Her average online haul was a robust nearly $100,000 per day in February. It had eroded to just over $30,000 in the run-up to the first debate.
“I was honestly not aware of that,” Ms. Harris said in a recent interview, asking her staff half-jokingly, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
They might not have briefed her on the details — that in June she failed to crack $10,000 in online donations in a day for the first time, twice — but the decline was very much the backdrop to the first debate. Her trajectory put her at risk of falling far behind the financial front-runners, and the debate was her chance to turn it around.
Ms. Harris’s exchange with Mr. Biden over his fond recollections of working with segregationist senators and his opposition to mandated busing was like injecting rocket fuel into a starved engine: She netted $4.1 million in the following four days, $3.4 million online — about as much as she had raised digitally in the previous 10 weeks combined. She would collect 112,000-plus donations in the last four days of June.
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Before the debate, Ms. Harris’s strongest moment since her announcement had been her Senate Judiciary Committee questioning of Attorney General William P. Barr, which went viral in May. It caused a two-day spike of 17,500 donations.
Both peaks mirrored a trend across the contest: There is nothing comparable to a command performance on live television, especially one that reverberates on social media. That is reflected in donations — and polling.
Shortly after the first debate, Ms. Harris raced to 20 percent in a Quinnipiac poll. She checked in with her advisers, doubting the surge could be real. “The numbers jumped so significantly the day after, I felt that it had to be a sugar high,” Ms. Harris said in the interview. Sure enough, she was back to single digits after the second debate, at 7 percent.
In some ways, the most lasting legacy of her showdown with Mr. Biden was the influx of cash.
“It was legitimately a game-changer,” said Dan Newman, a former longtime Harris adviser. “With the caveat,” he added, “that the game changes a lot between now and Election Day.”
The day Elizabeth Warren called for impeachment
Back when he was a digital strategist for Barack Obama, Joe Rospars, one of Ms. Warren’s top advisers, used to tell people that constructing a digital fund-raising apparatus was mostly the act of putting out buckets and hoping for rain.
In January, Ms. Warren had buckets but no rain. The most arid day came on her 20th as a 2020 candidate, when she processed 202 donations worth a combined $5,548, a sum more fitting for a congressional candidate than a White House hopeful. That night, the actress Kate McKinnon likened Ms. Warren’s candidacy on “Saturday Night Live” to a doctor offering a prostate exam. “Bend over, America,” the actress said, “and let Mama Warren get to work.”
Days after the “SNL” segment, Ms. Warren rolled out her tax plan on the super wealthy. Donations ticked up. They did so again when she proposed universal child care in February. And breaking up big tech in March.
Her campaign describes her decision in late February to swear off traditional fund-raising with rich donors as a particularly crucial gamble that paid dividends. She brags regularly about how she calls small donors instead of the big bundlers who collect $2,800 checks.
Elizabeth Frantz for The New York Times
What made Ms. Warren’s campaign unique was its ability to spin policy and political pronouncements into financial support. In other words, they made it rain. Caitlin Mitchell, who oversees Ms. Warren’s fund-raising as chief mobilization officer, said that donors respond “when Elizabeth takes a strong and moral stand.”
But her first key inflection point came from television, when she laid out her agenda in a March CNN town hall that drew nearly 1.1 million viewers. In the 30 days ahead of that appearance, she had averaged 1,600 donations per day; in the 30 days after, it more than doubled to 3,800.
All but one of 50 of Ms. Warren’s worst fund-raising days came before that town hall, including more than a dozen after her disavowal of big-money events.
No single announcement seemed to goose the grass-roots as much as her April 19 call for congressional impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
“I want to make sure you know where I stand,” she wrote supporters. The email did not include a donate button. It did not matter. The donations came anyway. Contributions per day jumped by 50 percent in the 30 days after, compared with the month before.
For Ms. Warren, the impeachment call was quickly followed by her second CNN town hall, her plan to cancel most student debt and then Mr. Biden’s entry — a weeklong run that moved her fund-raising to a new plateau. Heading into the first debate in June, she was averaging $195,000 per day — without holding any fund-raisers.
Before April 19, Ms. Warren had gone 68 different days raising less than $50,000.
The day Bernie Sanders got everyone to keep giving
The third Tuesday in March was a quiet day for Mr. Sanders. He held no public events. His campaign sent no mass emails asking for money. He still received almost 33,000 contributions worth more than $475,000.
The 19th of the month is always a good day for Mr. Sanders.
When he entered the 2020 race on Feb. 19, droves of supporters signed up to make automatic monthly contributions. Since then, he has processed at least a combined 40,000 donations on the 19th and 20th of every month.
Tom Brenner for The New York Times
For perspective, that tops the number of donations that six rivals who made the debates collected in total through June.
Mr. Sanders’s fund-raising is one of plodding consistency, as if a factory full of contributors were constantly churning out small donations. Since declaring, Mr. Sanders has had 54 days where he received more than 10,000 donations. Mr. Biden has had five such days. “Steady as they go,” said Faiz Shakir, Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager.
The most powerful motivator for Sanders supporters — beyond those who signed up to automatically give again and again — was often simply the calendar. After a decade of receiving breathless, deadline-oriented pleas for cash, Democratic donors are primed to give at the end of months and quarters. Mr. Sanders’s supporters responded like clockwork: There were 81,500 donations on the last day of the first quarter and 81,000 at the end of the second.
Mr. Sanders’s devotees also like stuff. Stickers sell like crazy, records show. On June 7, Mr. Sanders emailed supporters with a question: “Where can I send you a copy of my new book?” The special deal was to “donate ANYTHING,” as one email put it, and get a copy of “Where We Go From Here.” He raised nearly $400,000 that day — triple what he had been raising.
“Unlike a lot of the other candidates, Bernie’s support with small-dollar donors is consistent, and it is durable, and it is growing,” said Tim Tagaris, a senior Sanders adviser and the campaign’s top digital official.
The Sanders campaign said its recurring donations are worth nearly $1.2 million per month. Those contributions alone, in the second quarter, exceeded the total quarterly hauls of more than half the field.
The day Joseph R. Biden Jr. entered the race
His advisers were anxious, and they arrived early to the makeshift Washington headquarters. They simply did not know what kind of response to expect. As President Obama’s running mate, Mr. Biden had access to the old email list from the Obama campaigns. Would those people give to Mr. Biden alone?
Within hours of Mr. Biden’s 6 a.m. announcement on April 25, money was pouring in.
He had 65,000 donations in 12 hours, en route to a $6.3 million haul in the first 24 hours — the biggest of any 2020 candidate. When Mr. Biden revealed his first full report in July, it appeared robust: $22 million raised, second most in the second quarter, in less time than his rivals.
Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
But the day-by-day data show potential early warning signs.
His five best fund-raising days all came in his first week. Perhaps more ominously, he was the only top-tier 2020 candidate in the field to report raising less money in June than May, and he placed fifth in the June money race.
The numbers show how Mr. Biden, who kept a scarcer public schedule than most rivals and has not done televised town halls, generally struggled to generate new waves of donations, even if he had a higher baseline. On no day in May or June did he top 10,000 donations; his kickoff rally day had nearly 8,000.
One of his few appreciable bumps, beyond recurring donations, came when he and Mr. Trump campaigned in Iowa on the same June day, offering voters a glimpse of a potential general election matchup. Another spike came on May 10, when Mr. Biden sent an email to supporters with the subject line “sorry.” (He was apologizing for having to ask for money.)
T. J. Ducklo, a Biden spokesman, said more than two-thirds of the campaign’s online donors were not on the initial list of supporters and that “widespread and enthusiastic support for Vice President Biden has resulted in a top-tier fund-raising operation.”
Mr. Shakir, the Sanders campaign manager, argued Mr. Biden’s figures were “quite uninspiring.” “His case for defeating Donald Trump with a grass-roots movement is not strong,” he said of Mr. Biden.
The case for the Sanders campaign to frame the race as between him and Mr. Biden is certainly clear. April 25 was one of Mr. Sanders’s best days of the year, too. He raised nearly $740,000 from 30,000 contributions after emailing supporters a two-word subject line: “Joe Biden.”
The day of Pete Buttigieg’s star turn on CNN
Back in January, Anthony Mercurio, who leads Mr. Buttigieg’s fund-raising operation, had set up alerts to buzz with every new donation. It was more than manageable. After all, Mr. Buttigieg was the virtually unknown mayor of South Bend, Ind., and had started exploring a run with an email list of only 24,000.
Mr. Buttigieg’s first break came on Valentine’s Day, when he appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” in his signature rolled up white shirt sleeves and blue tie, pitching a new generation of leadership. Donations leapt from less than 100 contributions per day to more than 1,600.
Then came Mr. Buttigieg’s CNN town hall on March 10. Mr. Mercurio’s phone exploded with “so many ActBlue notifications.” He turned them off that night.
Swikar Patel for The New York Times
In the 10 days leading up to the town hall, Mr. Buttigieg processed 8,900 contributions; the following 10 days, he had 80,000.
Of the 113 days after the town hall until June 30, Mr. Buttigieg raised at least $100,000 on all but seven of them. When Mr. Buttigieg formally announced his campaign in mid-April, he raised $4.2 million over four days, more than Ms. Harris’s four-day debate bounty.
Like Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg’s liftoff came from capitalizing on not just one moment but a series of them. As momentum from his CNN performance faded a week or so later, a Twitter post about how Mr. Buttigieg spoke Norwegian went viral. Donations spiked, from 3,000 the day before to 7,000. The next day, he was on MSNBC for a segment that host Joe Scarborough said got the most overwhelming response he’d ever seen — other than for Mr. Obama. Donations climbed above 8,000 that day.
Soon, an Iowa poll showed him surging to third place and 11 percent.
Of course, money alone doesn’t win presidential primaries. Yet the view of the race that the data reveals — all the money the campaigns have taken in, except online store purchases and offline donations under $200 — shows how pivotal a role small donations are playing. They are a proxy for enthusiasm. And candidates must have at least 130,000 unique contributors to make future debate stages.
Andrew Yang, the former tech executive proposing the government give $1,000 per month to every American adult, will be in the September debate. He beat out senators, governors and the mayor of America’s largest city for a spot.
Mr. Yang might be a 2020 asterisk if not for a February interview he did with Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host, comedian and MMA commentator. The interview has 3.6 million YouTube views.
In the 30 days before the interview, Mr. Yang averaged 62 donations per day; in the 30 days after, it was about 2,150.