Buttigieg, Harris, Gillibrand, Sanders, others have all swanned through town, seeking donations. This is just the beginning.


You do meet interesting people in San Francisco bars. Late last month, locals dropping into Manny’s on 16th and Valencia had the chance to rub shoulders with a Rhodes Scholar who plays concert piano, did a tour in Afghanistan with the Navy, got himself elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., and, like every other 37-year-old man in this town, wears brown shoes with dark pants.

Oh, he’s also married. And gay. And running for president.  

So, Pete Buttigieg qualifies as an interesting guy. The funny thing, though, is that he isn’t even the only Democratic presidential aspirant to drop into Manny’s in recent weeks; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was there several weeks earlier (along with a swarm of New York ex-pats). Presidential aspirants have, in fact, been all over the city this year: Sen. Kamala Harris at Delancey Street; Julian Castro at 111 Minna; Tulsi Gabbard at University of San Francisco and Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker sweeping through town, too. Andrew Yang, the anti-circumcision, pro-universal basic income darling of the Extremely Online drew a healthy in-person crowd here. And, on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders alighted at Fort Mason.

Politicians beating a path to the Bay Area to fund-raise is a story akin to planes landing safely at SFO. “California has always been the ATM for national campaigns,” says Sacramento Democratic consultant Brian Brokaw. And the Bay Area “is where the big money is. The high-dollar donors. The bundlers.”

Everyone in the political game knows this. Candidates have been traveling here to strike gold in the parlors of some iteration of Susie and Mark Buell since only slightly after miners were traveling here to strike gold, period. But, right now, San Franciscans have never been more likely to bump into a would-be president in the bathroom line at the local bar, or gain an audience with a sitting U.S. senator for the price of a burger and a beer (an organic, free-range burger and craft beer in a trendy San Francisco restaurant but, still, a low price of entry to meet a senator).

There are a number of reasons for this. We’ll get to that. But the upshot is unmistakable: Small-dollar events have never been more viable; San Francisco is lousy with small-dollar events; and our city has never been a more lucrative and necessary destination for politicians in search of money — any level of money.

All dollars great and small.

Even if Sen. Kamala Harris wins the California primary — and she better, for her sake — there are plenty of delegates to be had for the other candidates. Photo by Miki Katoni.

There are two major reasons why San Franciscans have been inundated of late by fund-raising presidential candidates — and figure to be even more inundated in the near future.

First off, after decades of irrelevance, California is now an early primary state. So now we get the early primary treatment. And this is a big deal. Rather than jump through the traditional hoops in small Midwestern or Northeastern states where an appreciable percentage of the voting population looks like it wandered off the set of a Pepperidge Farm commercial, candidates will now have to appeal to the nation’s most populous state — and one of its most diverse.

“If candidates only come to California for high-end fundraisers in Silicon Valley or Hollywood,” notes longtime city political consultant Nicole Derse, “they will not build up that volunteer base that they are going to really need to win.”

So, instead of coming out here to merely fund-raise, candidates are multi-tasking. They’re meeting with all the community groups and labor unions and elected officials you need to meet with to compete in the California primary. They may be prospecting for endorsements from local politicos — and, as Bernie Sanders did last time around, handing out endorsements to local politicos.

And they’ll be fund-raising of course. Always fund-raising. And here’s where the small-dollar events factor in. Faced with a crowded field of candidates largely unknown to the nation writ large, the Democratic National Committee came up with two criteria to get on its debate stage: Hit 1 percent or higher in three separate polls or amass 65,000 donors across 20 or more states.

So, that incentivizes candidates to think small when it comes to fund-raising. And if you’re going to think small, why not head to the Bay Area — where you can also think big via high-dollar events in well-furnished living rooms or exclusive restaurants before rolling up your sleeves and heading to a bar to meet folks who gave $25. Or less.

And there are many such people here. “If you look at fund-raising by zip codes, there are more donors in a square block of San Francisco than in whole towns in places like Iowa and New Hampshire,” notes Bay Area Democratic strategist Jim Ross. “It’s amazing how dense a donor environment the San Francisco Bay Area is.”

Since November 2016, we’ve only grown denser. And the funny thing about regular donations of modest sums of money — they add up. It’s like a layaway plan or a Patreon account. And the candidates know this.   

“The idea of getting somebody to contribute a few dollars to a campaign is that is not the last time they will hear from the campaign,” said longtime California strategist Dan Newman. “They want to put these people into monthly, recurring contributions. You are leveraging these people into a cumulative effect; it’s exponential.”

So, a $25 or $50 donation in early 2019 could grow 10-fold or more when all is said or done. Unlike a single donor maxing out with a $2,800 give — the federal per-cycle, per-candidate limit — a low-dollar donor can be hit up again and again and again through the campaign’s twists and turns. And this is useful — a decade ago, Hillary Clinton had plenty of big-dollar donors out of the gate, but after they maxed out she flagged down the stretch. And, of course, there are added benefits to having 2,800 people give you one dollar rather than one person cough up $2,800 — that whole “one man, one vote” thing, for starters.

Intuitively, once donors have given to a campaign, they tend to work that much harder for a candidate’s success. The activist types so common in this city are the sort of people to walk precincts for you, phone bank for you, even head to swing states like Nevada for you.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in fact, has made small-dollar donations one of the pillars of her campaign. Following the model of Sanders’ legion of donors giving “27 dollahs” in ’16, Warren has eschewed making any big-money calls at all. Instead, she’ll dial up donors who gave her toothpaste money offerings — in full view of the media, of course.

That plays well. In 2019, this may be a winning strategy for the Democrats. At the very least, Newman notes, “It’s an interesting cost-benefit analysis.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York speaks at Manny’s on Jan. 23. The crowd skewed largely toward New York ex-pats. Let’s put it this way: These people knew the correct way to fold a slice of pizza.

So, that’s why they’re coming here and will continue to do so. Candidates can hit up Hillsborough and Atherton and Forest Hill for big gives and then wander down to the Mission to host low-bar events, leverage $25 donors into a Patreon-like serial givers, and enlist them into a standing army.

If you’re Pete Buttigieg, you can hit up the LGBT community; if you’re Julian Castro, you can hit up the Latino community. The Bay Area contains multitudes, and everyone writes out checks.

And yet there are even more reasons to come here.

For one, California awards its delegates proportionally in its primary. Kamala Harris is expected to do well here (and woe is her if she doesn’t; meeting expectations is a big part of the early primaries). But even if Harris cleans up, a candidate clocking a relatively small proportion of California’s vote can still walk away with a relatively large number of delegates.

California is big.

Because so many people live here, a candidate who only does okay might win more delegates than one who rips it up in a small state like New Hampshire.

And, to top it off, you win more delegates when you do well in Democrat-heavy parts of the state — like the Bay Area — rather than the state’s remaining bastions of Republicanism. That’s yet another reason candidates are incentivized to visit here. So, they don’t just love us for our money.

But, let’s be honest, it’s mostly the money.

And that’s fine. With the ascent of small-dollar donations, we can two- or even three-time them and spread our small dollars to as many candidates as we desire.

“Voters are still in the dating phase,” notes Brokaw. “And $25 is a cheap date.”