America got its first look at 2016 presidential fundraising last week, as the don't-mess-with-Texas libertarian, Ted Cruz, revealed his donations through the Federal Elections Commissions. Cruz raised a lot of money: roughly $4 million in the first quarter of 2014.
More importantly, a deeper look at the raw data of his finances reveal that he raised 44.6 percent of his war chest through small donations of $200 or less. Cruz's first round of financing confirms the long-held suspicion that Tea Party-boosting, liberty-loving Republicans are indeed small donation powerhouses.
And this isn't exactly a brand new phenomenon. "Donations from people making modest campaign contributions appear poised to play an integral role in propelling [Tea Party-backed Republicans] into office," the Center for Responsive Politics wrote back in 2010.
Since then, many of the most prominent libertarian-leaning Republicans have indeed received support from small donors. Cruz's opponent—and a fellow proud libertarian—Senator Rand Paul, raised 43 percent of his individual donations from small donors, according to the CRP.
Compromise doesn't excite people the way controversy does.
In contrast, other popular establishment candidates raise much, much less from small donors. Senator John McCain, for instance, raised only nine percent of his individual campaign funds from donations of $200 or less in the 2014 election cycle.
The Tea Party element of the Republican party has an impressive history of donation innovation. During the 2008 election, before there were prominent libertarian candidates, Ron Paul supporters pioneered flash donation marathons known as "money bombs." That oddball idea would up raising over $6 million in just 24 hours. At the time, Paul's small donor prowess may have just been chalked up to his anti-establishment credentials; small-donor outliers were the only kinds of folks he could draw support from.
Nowadays, libertarian-leaning candidates are part of the mainstream. And as part of the mainstream, they've got plenty of big backers. Cruz has his own billionaire hedge fund fans, many of whom have generously donated to his campaign, as the New York Times reported. Cruz also boasts a sizable following of not-quite-billionaire whales; he raised over $400,000 from donors shelling out more than $10,000.
It's undeniable that Cruz's libertarian presence has attracted a noticeable grassroots base. We cannot assume, however, that small donors are better for democracy. In fact, Stanford University political science professor Adam Bonica has found that small donors seem to be attracted to the most extreme elements of the Republican wing.
"The most conservative Republicans have raised only a small fraction from top donors compared to their less conservative counterparts," Bonica argued in the Washington Post. Candidates who send out the most polarizing messages may be more likely to raise a swell of small donations from the most angry voters, he found. After all, compromise doesn't excite people the way controversy does.
Certainly Cruz, who was one of the more vocal elements behind the 2013 United States government shutdown, represents this trend. Though his actions at the time angered at least some party insiders, Cruz still managed to receive a lot of support from folks in Texas, the Federal Elections Commissions data shows.
Will a pattern of small donor-fueled uncompromising libertarians hold over the long run? We have too few data points to really establish a trend. Libertarians are only now starting to become mainstream and the political campaign for 2016 has just begun.
So far, both the hopes—and the worries—of small donations are holding steady.