Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi may be best known for serving as Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004 when the former Vermont governor broke fundraising records during his failed presidential bid.
Dean’s ability to attract modest, yet numerous, online donations drove his financial — if not political — success.
Trippi — who has worked in politics for decades, including roles on the presidential campaigns of Democrats Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and John Edwards, among others — recently talked with the Center for Public Integrity about the role small-dollar donors are playing in the 2016 presidential race. He also detailed changes he wants lawmakers to make to the nation’s campaign finance system.
On one hand, Trippi offers a dire forecast on the electoral fate of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has emerged as the most serious challenger to Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton. Like Dean, Sanders has unexpectedly generated most of the $41.5 million he’s already raised from grassroots givers — although Trippi doesn’t believe it will be enough to propel Sanders to the Democratic nomination.
But Trippi, like Sanders, nevertheless believes a revolution is coming to American elections: The only question is when.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Center for Public Integrity: What does it mean for the country when politicians are raising so much money from wealthy supporters rather than the grassroots?
Trippi: It’s a bad trend for the country.
Center for Public Integrity: What makes it a bad trend?
Trippi: All the things that turn people off and make them step back and throw their hands up are just spurred on by super PACs and big money. Democracy should be about the more people participating, the better.
Center for Public Integrity: What would you do instead?
Trippi: If you banned everything but $100 contributions to a candidate, I think we’d have a much stronger democracy. That’s what I would do. Unfortunately, with freedom of speech, you can’t.
Center for Public Integrity: Why do you like that idea?
Trippi: If you’ve got to put a bunch of $100 contributions together, candidates would be talking to a lot more people and having a lot less dinners with billionaires and millionaires. And only the ones who could connect to do that would be getting anywhere.
Center for Public Integrity: In the era of super PACs, what role do small-dollar donors play for campaigns?
Trippi: Look, all the established, front-runner, been-around-forever people have no problem in the current super PAC/let’s-go-speed-date-billionaires game that’s going on. But for anybody who is out there and is at zero and no one knows their name, it’s the only way to have any chance. Whatever chance we had in 2004 was because of that.
Center for Public Integrity: What stars have to align for a candidate to harness a big small-dollar donor network?
Trippi: You’ve got to have a message that is going to connect to a lot of people. You’re not trying to find one billionaire to fund you. You’re trying to find millions of people.
Center for Public Integrity: Why does the establishment like super PACs?
Trippi: None of these candidates want to go out and have to get 10 million people to give them $100. It’s easier to get one billionaire to write a $100 million check. That’s why these super PACs are important.
Center for Public Integrity: Where do you think this is all heading?
Trippi: The system we have cannot stand. All the billionaires out there should start doing some math. We’re a country of, like, 330 million people. There’s going to be a day when 20 million people connect with a candidate — and totally change America’s politics.
Center for Public Integrity: What was it like raising money from small-dollar donors in 1984 when you worked for Democrat Walter Mondale’s campaign?
Trippi: Because there was nothing called the Internet, people had to write these things called checks, stick them in these things called envelopes, lick these things called stamps, put them on the envelopes and mail them, which took days. And then the banks would put one-week holds on all the out-of-state checks. Candidates would not be able to access all that money for weeks.
Center for Public Integrity: And now?
Trippi: Now, candidates can raise millions of dollars — literally millions — within hours online.
Center for Public Integrity: How did the party establishment react when the Dean campaign raised so much money from small-dollar donors online in 2004?
Trippi: We scared the daylights out of the establishment, but that was about all we were able to do. Both party establishments are pretty good at making sure that a candidate who isn’t of the establishment doesn’t make it.
Center for Public Integrity: What about Barack Obama?
Trippi: You could argue that Obama beat the establishment in 2008, or was able to co-opt enough of them after he got enough small-dollar donations online. But — if you count him — he’s the rare exception.
In 2008, it’s three million people giving Barack Obama half a billion dollars and he wins. But after that, the Republicans did not run out and say, ‘Wow, we’ve got to create a network of three million people to compete with that $500 million machine.’ Instead, they make the super PAC thing happen.
And in 2012, the Democrats cave and say, ‘Yeah, us too,’ to super PACs. Barack Obama, who had been against super PACs and saying you can do this with people — he finally breaks down and says I was wrong, that to fight super PACs, you need to give to super PACs.
Center for Public Integrity: Why doesn’t a popular groundswell from small-dollar donors have the ability to carry more weight?
Trippi: It’s not just the money. A lot of the rules and things are set up to stop insurgent candidates.
Center for Public Integrity: What do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton in Iowa?
Trippi: The entire Democratic establishment would come out of the woodwork to stop Bernie Sanders from being the nominee. The establishment fervently believes that a socialist cannot be president of the United States.