Biden struggles to raise money in era of Zoom soirées

One of the biggest perks for large-scale donors to US presidential campaigns is the traditional photo-op, a picture shaking hands with a grinning candidate that can sit prominently on an office wall or living room mantle. 

But in a global pandemic, Democrat Joe Biden has been forced to forgo not only the grip-and-grin photograph, but also the one-on-one chit-chat that comes with it. Instead, some of his fundraisers have been offering “rain checks” — promises of some future perk — although one donor said “what the rain check is going to be convertible to is less than clear”.

As Mr Biden enters the final six months of his race against Donald Trump, he faces a yawning fundraising gap and little proven ability to raise the kind of small donations from the Democratic grassroots that fuelled the campaigns of his Democratic rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That has forced Mr Biden to rely on traditional sources of money, but without the opportunity to court well-heeled donors at Manhattan cocktail parties or Hollywood galas.

Mr Biden has picked up a number of influential donors who previously supported some of his rivals. Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who initially backed Pete Buttigieg, has donated to Mr Biden, as has Tony James, the executive vice-chairman of Blackstone who supported Amy Klobuchar.

However, some big Democratic fundraisers said the campaign had been slow to adjust to the new realities of fundraising. While Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by 5 percentage points in national opinion polls — according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics — he lags the president on the fundraising side. At the end of March, Mr Trump’s campaign had $98.5m in cash on hand compared with $26.4m for Mr Biden’s.

“It’s a difficult fundraising environment,” said a prominent Democratic donor who gave to Mr Buttigieg and is now fundraising for Mr Biden.

“First, people are really scared about their health or the health of the people who are close to them. Second, a lot of people have economic problems. Third, you can’t put them in front of the candidate. For those three reasons you don’t have the level of responsiveness that you would normally have six months before an election.”

Like many businesses under lockdown, Mr Biden’s campaign has turned to Zoom and together with a cast of surrogates he has been beamed on to wealthy donors’ iPhones and laptops.

A Zoom call with more than 2,000 Obama White House and campaign alumni raised more than $1m.

Hosts of a Zoom fundraiser with Hillary Clinton, scheduled for May 19, have been asked to contribute $100,000 each. Other donors are being asked for between $5,600 and $50,000 and a number of tickets have been set aside for those who give $2,800.

A person involved with the Biden campaign said it was preparing to test new fundraising measures, such as deploying more celebrity surrogates, while acknowledging that the fundraising gap with Mr Trump was a concern. “You have to be worried,” the person said.

“The Biden campaign has not really gone on a charm offensive of big donors yet,” said a second person involved with the campaign. “Partly because they were still trying to consolidate support from other candidates and also because they didn’t want to start asking for money in the middle of a pandemic.”

“Unless somebody has a personal beef with Joe, you should expect big ticket donors to start contributing once the race starts heating up again,” the person added. “Biden might not inspire donors as much as people like Buttigieg did but they know that if they want to get rid of Trump they will have to support him and they will.”

Ms Klobuchar, another of Mr Biden’s Democratic primary rivals, has emerged as one of his more prolific fundraisers. The Minnesota Democratic senator is among a short list of women Mr Biden is considering as his running mate.

An event this week Ms Klobuchar co-hosted with Mr Biden raised $1.5m, the highest figure for any of Mr Biden’s virtual fundraisers, according to a person familiar with the event.

A Wall Street investor who helped raise thousands of dollars for Ms Klobuchar during her campaign said: “She’s working really hard to be a viable candidate”.

While other Biden primary rivals have also helped to raise money for him, Senators Kamala Harris and Michael Bennet have taken part in virtual fundraisers, not all have been as successful in convincing their main donors that they should contribute to the Biden campaign.

The prominent Democratic contributor who first backed Mr Buttigieg said he had struggled to persuade supporters of the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — many of them new donors — to give money to Mr Biden.

Lev Sviridov, who raised more than $25,000 for Mr Buttigieg but has not raised money for Mr Biden, said there was a divide between Democrats who had donated both to Mr Buttigieg and other candidates, and those who only gave money to Mr Buttigieg.

“If you look at Pete’s character it was all about investing in the future, and how things could be versus how they are,” he said. “No one believes [Biden] is the future.”

The fact that Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, had pledged to back Mr Biden’s candidacy had also turned off some Buttigieg donors, Mr Sviridov said. “Most of the them say: ‘Oh what’s the point. He’s going to have a billion dollars anyway.’”

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