scorecardresearch Skip to main content

College students dig deep to donate to candidates

Students filed across Boston University’s campus in April 2015. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Students spend money on all sorts of things: textbooks, tuition, pizza, beer. But campaign donations?


Hillary Clinton has received more than $1.4 million in contributions from donors who identified themselves as students, including nearly 400 who gave the maximum $2,700 allowed during the primary. US Senator Bernie Sanders received twice as many donations from self-described students — about 7,000 total — but in much smaller increments. He had just two donations at the maximum amount.

In total, Clinton raised four times as much as Sanders from students, according to a Globe analysis of campaign fund-raising data. Online reports from last April through February showed Republican presidential candidates raised far less than Democrats from students, with the current GOP field raising $176,000 from about 900 student donations.


But the idea of students spending thousands of dollars when many still lug laundry home raises some eyebrows.

“Students are laden with debt,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which partners with the Globe on polling. “If you’ve got a person who is a student who is maxed out, that tells me either that student is a grad student or is independently wealthy or that it’s probably their parents’ money.”

Sometimes it’s all three. Interviews with students who donated to Clinton and Sanders revealed their motivations — and the source of their funds. They say they were stirred by their candidate’s message, be it Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” or Clinton’s barrier-breaking candidacy. Some were graduate students with cash reserves. Others were surviving on student loans and summer jobs. And a few acknowledged that their donation actually came with help from mom and dad.

Naomi Bernstein, a creative writing student at the University of Pennsylvania, was vacationing with her parents on Nantucket this summer when they heard Clinton speak at a fund-raiser. She gave Clinton $2,700 — or at least her parents did.


“My parents were supporting me,” the 22-year-old said. “I was like gung-ho, 100 percent voting for Hillary Clinton.”

Laura Brindley, a senior at Wellesley College who says Clinton inspired her to attend the women’s liberal arts college, went to a fund-raiser with her mother when she was home in Seattle for the summer.

“My mom gave enough to take me,” said the 22-year-old French and political science major at Clinton’s alma mater. “I would never turn down an opportunity [to] meet Hillary.”

Although Bernstein’s and Brindley’s money is with Clinton, they say their loyalties are now with Sanders. Both said they changed their minds about whom to support after they donated.

Third-party contributions — that is, a donation given on behalf of someone else — are usually considered illegal, according to campaign finance experts. But those experts also caution the law is tricky when students give donations at an age when they remain an extension of their parents’ finances.

Former Federal Election Commission chairman Michael E. Toner said there are three basic requirements for individual political contributions: It has to be the donor’s money, the donor must be old enough to know what he or she is doing, and he or she can’t be reimbursed for the contribution.

“It gets more challenging with kids who are giving max contributions and they have no jobs and their parents are major donors who have contributed the max themselves,” Toner said. “It’s a tough scenario.”


That wasn’t the case for Andrew Bernstein, a biology major at Carleton College in Minnesota, who gave Clinton $2,700, basically emptying his savings account of the money he earned at his summer job.

“It’s hard to be a Hillary supporter,” said Bernstein, 20, noting that many of his schoolmates support Sanders.

John Dolan, a senior at Boston University, cut a check for $500 for Clinton.

“My mother — thank God — money for birthdays and stuff, she never let me spend it,” the 22-year-old said, adding that he also works as a waiter. “A lot of kids aren’t donating because they think their $5 or $10 doesn’t matter.”

Phillip Geer, a graduate student at UMass Amherst, has given Sanders a total of $310. He acknowledges it’s “a lot to me. Right now, I’m on loans.” He gives when the mood strikes: When Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, or when he’s just “thinking about it.”

GOP front-runner Donald Trump received just 16 student donations — none at the maximum amount — for a total of $2,376. US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas received nearly 800 student donations — including 18 at the maximum amount — and Ohio Governor John Kasich had about 115 donations from students, six for $2,700.

Sanders’ popularity runs deep among younger voters, especially among millennials. Polls show Sanders has overwhelming support among voters under 30 years old. Clinton has acknowledged that enthusiasm gap, saying young people “may not support me now, but I support them.”


It’s possible that both campaigns raised more from students than donation reports show. The federal government doesn’t require campaigns to itemize contributions under $200, meaning they don’t have to collect and report the name, address, occupation, and employer of donors who give small amounts.

Clinton’s campaign said it does not itemize individual contributions under $200, but plenty of them still show up on campaign fund-raising reports. Campaign fund-raising records show the smallest contribution Clinton and Sanders received was $1.

“The reality is today most contributions are made with a credit card or online or with a check, so that means the candidate gets the name of even very small donors,” said Paul S. Ryan, the deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group for campaign finance law.

Campaigns often list their small donors because it helps shape political narratives, political analysts said.

Sanders’ campaign aides did not return an e-mail seeking comment about whether they listed all of their small donors, but his campaign finance reports are filled with $3 and $27 donations — odd-numbered amounts frequently suggested in his fund-raising e-mail pleas for cash.

Lucas Benjamin, a 20-year-old at Brown University, has given Sanders $5 here and there, occasionally giving a $50 or $20 donation, according to campaign finance reports. The Pittsfield native said his small donation feels like a tangible connection to something larger and important.

“As a student, normally I never donate,” said Benjamin, a sophomore with a work-study job. “A dollar I give to Bernie goes a lot further than a dollar I would give to anyone else because I know that he needs it.”


Then there are those students like Christopher Eaton, whose periodic giving to Sanders adds up to a lump sum of $986, federal campaign fund-raising reports show. The 21-year-old political science major at Clark University has given 60 times to Sanders between November and February.

“Sanders’ message of moving America more to a socialist democracy is really appealing to me,” Eaton said. “If Bernie were to become president, it would, in a certain kind of weird way, feel like I would also be part of the White House.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.