KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In running for president, Bernie Sanders did something that seemed impossible. He ran a competitive campaign without taking any contributions larger than $2,700. NPR's Peter Overby set out to learn whether anyone else could do the same and win.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: One staple of Sanders' rallies has been the financial report.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: In the last year, we have received over 7.3 million individual contributions.
OVERBY: This is Sanders' last month, the night of the Kentucky primary. He lost it by a whisker. When Sanders asked what the average contribution was, the crowd roared back $27.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SANDERS: What is revolutionary about that is we have shown the world that we can run a winning national campaign without being dependent on powerful and wealthy special interests.
OVERBY: No other major party candidate ever ran a campaign like this. Sanders has raised more than $210 million. He relied heavily on donors who gave small amounts over and over. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager.
JEFF WEAVER: I do remember those early days when we were looking at budgets and looking at $30 million and thinking that perhaps we could get to 50.
OVERBY: He said small donor fundraising has to do with the message and the messenger. He said the donors understand.
WEAVER: That contribution is much more critical to the success of the campaign. And, you know, that feeling is justified because that's exactly right. When you only rely on small donors, you know, every one of those $27 is critically important.
OVERBY: Sanders isn't the only candidate to score big with small donors this year. For Republican Ted Cruz, they accounted for $37 million dollars, about one-third of the campaign committee's budget. Trace Anderson is a grass roots and finance consultant to Cruz.
TRACE ANDERSON: He had always been a favorite and still is a favorite and a hero to the right, especially in the grass-roots side of things. But it certainly blew all of our expectations in terms of the dollars raised.
OVERBY: But Cruz also benefited from an armada of super PACs. Walking away from super PACs and big donors is an unprecedented risk. But Sanders wound up with the fundraising list of some 2.5 million contributors. They're loyal, and Sanders' campaign is well known for pulling in millennial voters.
ANTHONY CORRADO: It's largely a younger list. I expect it includes many new donors that are amongst the traditional source of candidate or party finance.
OVERBY: Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College said there's also a big unknown about those donors.
CORRADO: Whether they are largely Sanders donors or whether he has tapped into a large cohort of progressive individuals who are going to be responsive to candidates who adopt progressive policy issues.
OVERBY: Sanders has already deployed his list to help 13 down-ballot progressives. The fundraising was a success. But in the first contest for any of them, a House candidate in Nevada lost her primary race Tuesday.
The big question is whether the Sanders donors will help fund a party that they say rigged the game against them. Democratic fundraising consultant Mike Fraioli.
MIKE FRAIOLI: It's tough to convert donors like that. I don't think it's a message that easily moves to another candidate or another committee.
OVERBY: From our mainstream candidates, it may be too scary to go after small donors and abandon the tried-and-true. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.