Vivek Ramaswamy (left) and Doug Burgum are self-funding their campaigns for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy, like a litany of wealthy men before them, think they can buy themselves a ticket to the White House. In fact, they are struggling to even buy the donors they need to get to the front stage of the Republican Party debate.
The two self-financiers, one a tech executive-turned-Governor of North Dakota, the other a 37-year-old biotech entrepreneur, use fanciful fundraising methods to try to get out of the main GOP domain and into securing seats on the first stage debate in August.
Each method carries a degree of risk and a possible reward. Ramaswamy offers to give donors a share of his fundraising. Burgum promises $20 gift cards to the first 50,000 people who contribute at least $1 to his campaign. Both programs are totally unorthodox, underscoring the mad rush among Republicans for seemingly limitless resources to get to the debate in Milwaukee.
“To me, they both look like pyramid schemes,” said Mike Nellis, who runs a fundraising and digital marketing agency for Democrats. “If you’re trying to build a campaign that’s going to get enough votes to beat Donald Trump in the primary, you’re not going to do it with that kind of transactionalism.”
Jay Sticka, another digital fundraiser for Democrats, distinguished between the two programs, both launched this week: Ramaswamy’s which he called “innovative…it takes what’s already happening with the bundlers and brings a basic element to it”, while that of Burgum, at first glance, is more problematic.
“I think they’re the product of two relatively desperate campaigns,” Sticka said. “And when you’re desperate, you’re ready to do things that are way outside the norm.”
While Ramaswamy has been quietly and seemingly systematically building a grassroots base, the same cannot yet be said of North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Burgum, who made his fortune selling his software company to Microsoft in 2001 and already spends heavily on campaign advertising, entered the presidential race in June with much less time to build a donor base for the debates. Failing to make the first leg of the debate would quickly end his presidential dreams — or give him a chance to generate a viral moment propelling him into contention against the likes of former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
He won’t know if he can’t make it — and to get there, he wants to give You money.
In text messages to supporters throughout the week, Burgum promises a return on investment for a small donation. “All you have to do is donate $1, and we’ll send you a $20 gift card to help ease the burden of bidenflation,” it read. (Inflation is at its lowest in more than two years.) The campaign is also offering to register donors for a chance to win a trip to the debate, “A NEW AMERICAN FLAG!” or $1,900 for a Benelli shotgun.
It’s not uncommon to see campaigns offering swag, one of the most ethically questionable but still legal ways to draw eyes and dollars to their candidates. They also prey on less tech-savvy donors with emails that read like fundraising notices or personal notes that the candidates themselves are trying to reach you.
But experts told HuffPost that essentially offering to reimburse donors is outside the realm of normality at best and potentially illegal at worst. Burgum’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from HuffPost. On Wednesday afternoon, Burgum was still sending offers for a $20 gift card, which apparently failed to attract 50,000 people.
If you’re trying to build a campaign that will get enough votes to beat Donald Trump in the primary, you’re not going to do it with that kind of transactionalism.Mike Nellis, Head of Fundraising and Digital Marketing Agency
Larry Nobel, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, told HuffPost that what the two candidates are doing is “novel” and can likely be accomplished within the law.
Burgum’s plan, however, is “more questionable,” Nobel said, because it raises the specter of illegal “straw donors,” or people who contribute to the campaign under someone else’s name. The campaign could fall into this trap if it doesn’t properly track its contributions or record them as donations at all. “At the very least, they should have to signal this in a way that makes the whole program clear. Even then, I think it raises potential legal issues.
Another campaign finance watchdog who did not want to be registered yet, pending further investigation into the two campaigns, said Burgum’s idea “does not appear to break the law but does raise concerns that he is effectively playing the system by using his personal campaign contributions to entice people to contribute in order to qualify for the debates.
The rich have shown time and time again that money can get you closer to the White House, but it won’t make you a president.
In 2020, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire, spent $500 million on a jolt of a Democratic presidential campaign just to win delegates from… America Samoa and no other state or territory. There was also gingham-tie-wearing investor Tom Steyer, who also spent nearly $350 million on the Democratic nomination to win…nothing. John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland and another wealthy businessman, spent more than $11 million of his own money in this contest. (Delaney also resorted to gimmicks to speed up his grassroots fundraising, promising to donate $2 to charity for every donation he received.)
Ramaswamy, which is worth a estimated at half a billion dollarslaunched “Vivek’s Kitchen Cabinet” this week, which promises its supporters a 10% discount on the funds they raise for the campaign using an affiliate link.
Ramaswamy already has 65,000 unique donors, and he didn’t launch this program to get on the debate stage, said senior campaign adviser Tricia McLaughlin. The Republican National Committee requires candidates to have at least 40,000 unique donors, including 200 from each of the 20 states, as a threshold designed to prevent the wealthy from essentially buying themselves a place on stage.
As a first-time candidate, McLaughlin said, Ramaswamy looked at how campaigns raise money using outside consultants and thought, “Why are people making ungodly amounts of money from this? He was quite disgusted to think about it and thought that if these people are able to do it, then everyone should be able to do it.
To some, however, the program smacks of multilevel marketing (MLM) — a predatory type of business venture that primarily targets women with promises of financial freedom in exchange for peddling. leggings And beauty products to their Facebook networks while putting them deeply in debt. But unlike an actual MLM, Ramaswamy doesn’t require anything from its core fundraisers outside of a background check.
His team strongly refutes the characterization of his program as a pyramid scheme.
“Some people said it was multi-level marketing. It’s not true. It’s a flat 10% commission,” McLaughlin said.
Over the course of several months, Ramaswamy has gone from last place to a long shot behind Trump, DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence in GOP primary field polls. Unlike Trump, who was notoriously reluctant to pump his campaign with his own money until the 2016 general election, Ramaswamy launched his candidacy with a $10 million loan. He has yet to say how much he is willing to spend on his campaign but travels all over the country in a custom coach.
The same watchdog who sounded the alarm over Burgum’s campaign said Ramaswamy’s appeared to be following the letter of the law: “It’s not uncommon for fundraising consultants to be paid with a reduction in the contributions they pool for campaigns, and this program seems to fall into the same category.”