El Dorado Hills Grad a Key Player in Bernie Sander's national campaign

by Placerville Newswire / Feb 14, 2016 / comments

[Kenneth Pennington, the Sanders campaign’s digital director, in Milwaukee. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times]

"Mr. Sanders has no official finance director, but with the help of people like Mr. Pennington, who built his first website at age 12, he has created a fund-raising juggernaut that has fueled his unexpectedly competitive race for president."

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In the back of a Concord, N.H., school gymnasium, as Bernie Sanders gave a triumphant speech after winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Kenneth Pennington stood staring at his smartphone, watching the numbers climb. Mr. Pennington, 24, the campaign’s digital director, saw thousands of people cramming onto the Sanders website at once, frantically trying to donate to his campaign. In one minute alone, 2,689 people had donated an average of $34.

“It was, obviously, a big day,” said Mr. Pennington, who found himself jumping up and down as the contributions rolled in.

Mr. Sanders has no official finance director, but with the help of people like Mr. Pennington, who built his first website at age 12, he has created a fund-raising juggernaut that has fueled his unexpectedly competitive race for president. The network his team built now threatens the once-daunting Clinton fund-raising model, which the family perfected over years of Beverly Hills dinners, Hamptons summer parties, and rewards for donors like nights in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Mr. Sanders, the Vermont senator, has raised some $96 million to Hillary Clinton’s $127 million, but he is gaining ground after raising $5 million more than she did last month. His operation is also highly efficient — Mr. Sanders simply asks his small donors to give online, and they do, while Mrs. Clinton has left the campaign trail repeatedly to fly to other cities for receptions with bigger contributors.

In the 48 hours after his 22-point victory in New Hampshire, for example, the senator’s campaign raised $8 million online.

“I don’t feel like a finance director, but it may have turned out that way,” said Mr. Pennington, who taught himself how to build websites as a middle school student in El Dorado Hills, Calif.

In an election cycle when just 158 families provided half of the early money for the presidential campaign, the success of the Sanders operation has startled some political operatives, especially those who are veterans of campaign fund-raising efforts.

The competition between Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton is as much about a collision of fund-raising cultures as it is about dollars: The Sanders team runs a heavily digital, bare-bones operation, stoked by social media and credit-card transactions. The Clinton camp also has a substantial digital fund-raising operation, but so far has relied more on in-person appeals to richer individuals, an approach that requires more elaborate planning, travel, invitations, handshakes and picture taking.

Mrs. Clinton has spent the past 10 months crisscrossing the country and attending more than 230 fund-raisers, asking for checks of up to $2,700, the maximum contribution allowed in the primary campaign. Some 24,000 people and political action committees have given that maximum, providing her with a base of about $65 million for her campaign.

Among supporters of Mr. Sanders, by contrast, only 649 donors have provided the maximum amount, and the average donation is about $27. That means that most of his donors — more than 1.3 million so far, according to the campaign — can continue to contribute as the primary race moves to Nevada, South Carolina and the 11 states that hold contests on March  1. 

The Clinton campaign acknowledges that Mr. Sanders has excelled at small-donor solicitations, but says the former first lady is catching up. Smaller donors may have assumed early on that Mrs. Clinton did not need checks for $1 or $5, but after her stinging loss in New Hampshire, they may decide to give.

“It has been a problem,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director. “I think there was a view she would probably have a lot of resources available to her, and I do think that hurt fund-raising early on.”

“It’s not necessarily part of the campaign narrative,” she added. “But we have a lot of very committed supporters and a small-dollar base that you would like to be the engine of your support.”

The campaign saw some of its best days for online gifts after Mrs. Clinton testified for 11 hours before the congressional Benghazi committee in October and after Mr. Sanders referred to Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, both of which are supporting Mrs. Clinton, as the “establishment.” Mrs. Clinton also has the support of a “super PAC,” Priorities USA, which amassed more than $25 million in the last six months of 2015.

Mr. Sanders has appealed to liberal voters by calling to eradicate such outside groups and insisting he does not need them. His critics have noted, however, that the super PAC of the National Nurses United, a union, had spent more than $1 million on ads and other support for him.

The Sanders and Clinton fund-raising teams are strikingly different: Mr. Pennington heads a team of three young digital operatives. They are glued to their laptops in a Washington office all day, usually dressed in T-shirts or cozy sweaters. One of them gets lunch at Chipotle every day.

The Clinton campaign’s digital campaign handles online giving, but its finance director, Dennis Cheng, a London School of Economics graduate who wears pressed suits with pocket squares and striped Paul Smith socks, embodies the more traditional approach to giving. A former deputy chief of protocol for the State Department, he is known as one of the most connected fund-raisers in Democratic politics, able to seamlessly socialize with moneyed sources from Southern California to South Africa. Before joining the campaign, Mr. Cheng helped build up a $250 million endowment at the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Mrs. Clinton is eager to show that she has generated money from small donors even if she trails Mr. Sanders. Contributions under $200 each accounted for almost 20 percent of the total given to the Clinton campaign in 2015.

“My 750,000 donors have contributed a million and a half donations,” she said at the Democratic debate on Thursday night.

But as a result of her reliance on traditional fund-raising events, she has been forced to...

Read more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/us/politics/small-gifts-to-bernie-sanders-challenge-hillary-clinton-fund-raising-model.html