The first thing a Hillary Clinton supporter is asked to do after signing up on the Democratic presidential nominee's website is donate some money – as little as $3.
Such minuscule amounts are essentially rounding errors in a campaign expected to collect as much as $2.5-billion (U.S.) by the end of the 2016 election. But the push for tiny donations represents the Clinton campaign's most important challenge: building a massive base of individual supporters similar to the one Barack Obama relied on to defeat Ms. Clinton two elections ago.
To do that, the Clinton team is unleashing a social-media onslaught, from Twitter missives to Facebook campaigns to YouTube – the online video platform where Ms. Clinton first announced her candidacy.
Ms. Clinton's bid for small-scale individual support is backed by a much more sophisticated social-media operation than the one she ran eight years ago. The campaign's Twitter and Facebook accounts have about four million followers between them. Coupled with the candidate's name recognition, those followers give Ms. Clinton a reach on social media that dwarfs most of her Republican and Democratic opponents. The tweet in which Ms. Clinton makes clear her intention to run has since been retweeted some 110,000 times.
Much of Ms. Clinton's social-media activity – largely run by a team of strategists and much more prolific since she announced her run for President – is visual in nature, intended to cast Ms. Clinton as a woman of the people. The campaign's myriad accounts frequently post photos of Ms. Clinton alongside everyday Americans in whatever small town she happens to be visiting.
The account also hopes to highlight Ms. Clinton's personality and sense of humour – areas in which President Obama managed to outflank her eight years ago – by capitalizing on various memes and Internet trends. When a graphic designer created a mocking typeface based on the Clinton campaign's logo, the campaign's social-media team used it to write a message urging people to volunteer.
In addition to shifting personal perceptions of Ms. Clinton, the campaign's social-media effort is also focused on geography. Besides a general Twitter and Facebook presence, the campaign team has also set up specialized social-media accounts targeting Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada and South Carolina – five of the earliest battlegrounds in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
The goals of these efforts are straightforward: present an image of a personable, more tech-savvy candidate, establish a grassroots digital presence in the most politically important part of the country and, in the process, raise more money. With various programs for "founding donors" and other early-stage supporters, the Clinton campaign is focusing its small-money efforts on the early part of the campaign, before the presidential race kicks off in earnest next year and candidates begin spending huge sums of money on attack ads and other big-ticket items.
After losing the 2008 Iowa caucus to a then-unheralded Mr. Obama, Ms. Clinton returned to the state this month eager to shake off her image as the head of a massive political juggernaut. Rather than arranging large campaign events, Ms. Clinton is focusing in the early going on meetings – albeit heavily stage-managed ones – with smaller groups. Indeed, the presumptive Democratic nominees messaging is very much tailored to make her sound like a champion for the masses.
"It's fair to say, as you look across the country, the deck is still stacked in favour of those already at the top," Ms. Clinton said in her first stop as a declared candidate. "And there's something wrong with that. There's something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker."
But by trying to paint herself as a leader in the fight to limit financial influence in government, Ms. Clinton also leaves herself susceptible to charges of hypocrisy. Some of her biggest financial backers include billionaires such as George Soros. Indeed, Ms. Clinton is likely to benefit immensely from Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that essentially opened the floodgates for outside spending on U.S. elections.
Two years before Ms. Clinton announced her intention to run, the political action committee "Ready For Hillary" was out collecting funds in support of a Clinton presidential bid. In all, the so-called "Super PAC" collected some $15-million from 135,000 donors. Ms. Clinton has also come under fire over the Clinton Foundation, her family's tax-exempt philanthropic organization. Critics argue the organization represents a backdoor for donors to curry favour with the Clintons under the relatively sanitized guise of charitable giving.
Republican opponents have seized on these avenues of attack. Much of the GOP's messaging has focused squarely on painting Ms. Clinton as a member of the wealthy, well-connected class whose influence on U.S. politics she espouses to limit.
"Clinton's early fundraising e-mail lamented the pay disparity between CEOs and workers, yet she was recently making 4.4 times the average American's annual income in a single speech," said GOP spokesman Sean Spicer shortly after Ms. Clinton's Iowa stop. "At up to $300,000 a speech, she made more in 90 minutes than four average workers earn in a year."
That's why the perception of wide grassroots support – cultivated through Ms. Clinton's sprawling digital network – is so vital to the Democratic candidate's campaign. The extent to which Ms. Clinton is able to point to a broad base of donations – even those $3 donations – will likely predict her ability to shield herself from the charge that her campaign represents and relies on big money.