- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - For someone who rails almost daily against big money in politics, Bernie Sanders has suddenly become pretty good at getting it.

In the past three months, the independent senator from Vermont pulled in $26 million for his Democratic campaign for president. That’s several millions more than he’s raised from donors during his entire 26-year congressional career, and nearly as much as the $28 million haul of front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The sizable sum is all the more remarkable because Sanders raised it without engaging in the typical dance with donors that has become a hallmark of running for president.

Sanders has held just seven fundraisers, compared to the more than 110 fundraisers thrown by Clinton since she launched her campaign in April. His cost typically around $100 to attend, while hers routinely charge $2,700 - the most allowed by law.

The receptions are more of a rally than the catered affairs at a wealthy donor’s home that are typical of political fundraisers. And forget about the boutique hotel retreats, strategic briefings and other perks often given to high-dollar donors.

One event, held in the suburban Los Angeles backyard of actor Larry Dilg, featured the host singing an ode to Sanders, a version of the Neil Young song “Rockin’ in the Free World” modified to include Sanders-centric lyrics like “got a man from Vermont telling folks the truth.”

“We don’t have a small room of people who contribute $1 million apiece,” Sanders said last month in New York. “Many of you contributed 50 bucks, many of you don’t have a lot of money. We appreciate it.”

Sanders has instead raised the bulk of his funds online, with an active Internet presence aimed at recruiting smaller givers. But the success of the strategy has surprised many, including the candidate himself. The average online contribution was about $30, and 99 percent of his donations were $100 or less, according to his campaign.

“The kinds of crowds we’re drawing, the kinds of small donations that are coming into the campaign, the kind of volunteer organizations that we’re putting together has gone a lot faster than I thought it would,” Sanders said Thursday in an interview on the NPR show “On Point.”

It’s an approach modeled on that of President Barack Obama, who demonstrated the power of an active base of small-dollar donors. As did Obama, Sanders’ campaign can return again and again to the same givers for more money, because they have not hit the $2,700 contribution limit.

But Obama also quickly won over large chunks of the traditional big-dollar Democratic donor base, allowing him to build the kind of large-scale national effort needed to win the general election. Only 34 percent of Obama’s 2008 general election donations ended up coming from individuals giving $200 or less.

Clinton’s team, too, is trying to claim the Obama fundraising mantle. Her aides say 93 percent of their third-quarter donations were $100 or less. But $19 million, or more than two-thirds of her total haul, came from events where admission typically cost the $2,700 maximum.

In total, Clinton ended the quarter with more money in her bank account - $32 million to Sanders’ $25 million. She has spent more in the past six months than Sanders has raised overall for his presidential bid, building a national operation comprised of staff and dozens of offices across the country.

“We’ve built a campaign that is built to last and built to win,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in an online video released Thursday. “We’re going to stay on strategy no matter what the other side throws at us.”

Yet Sanders’ success in the past three months underscores a concern among Clinton supporters, namely that her financial edge is declining as she spends money at a rapid clip, while his upstart bid remains lean and with enough money to keep competing deep into the primaries.

Aides say Sanders has long hated hobnobbing with wealthy donors, though he’s raised hundreds of thousands from labor unions in the past. Before entering the 2016 race, Sanders’ major fundraising event was an annual sunset cruise on Lake Champlain, for which donors paid $25 to attend.

In Vermont, Sanders largely raised money by mailing political fundraising letters. A 2,600-word missive he sent in April 2014 features a section, highlighted by the use of capital letters, railing against the influence of billionaire donors in political campaigns.

“THE STRUGGLE THAT WE’RE ENGAGED IN RIGHT NOW IS WHETHER WE CAN PREVENT THIS COUNTRY FROM MOVING TO AN OLIGARCHIC FORM OF SOCIETY IN WHICH VIRTUALLY ALL ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL POWER RESTS WITH A HANDFUL OF BILLIONAIRES,” he wrote.

During the final hours of the fundraising quarter on Wednesday night, Sanders’ team showed how social media buzz can help bolster fundraising. After announcing a $24 million haul in the early evening, his campaign used social media sites to appeal for more money before the midnight deadline.

The Clinton campaign’s announcement that it had raised $28 million fanned the flames even more. Sanders’ campaign said during a 60-second stretch at 10:03 p.m. EDT, after Clinton’s campaign announced its numbers, it raised $4,500 online, the most it has raised in a single minute.

By the end of the night, Sanders had hauled in $2.07 million in a single day, including $502,000 during the final 2 1/2 hours.

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Thomas reported from Boston. Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Lisa Lerer and Ken Thomas on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/llerer and http://twitter.com/kthomasdc

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