The hot new thing for 2016—getting small donors

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a campaign fundraising reception October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a campaign fundraising reception October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles.

In 2012, only President Barack Obama did it — and well indeed. He mastered the ability to get millions of regular people to give his campaign small donations, and that avalanched into a huge war chest that helped him to win re-election.

No other candidate in the 2012 cycle came close to that type of fundraising. And Obama's success in building small money into big campaign cash may have rewritten the money playbook.

In the current election cycle, a lot more candidates — and from both parties — have been copying the strategy.

Democrat Bernie Sanders has been able to keep relatively close to Hillary Clinton almost entirely on the support of "unitemized" campaign donations — those less than $200. People who donate more than $200 are required to list their names and occupations, and the contributions are itemized on the campaign's filings. For donations under that amount, no specific filing is needed.

As a result, all the unitemized donations get lumped together into one big line item in the Federal Eelection Commission database. That one line item could represent thousands or even millions of people by the time the election ends a year from now. If an individual gives to a campaign multiple times for a total over $200, the excess is itemized while the original $200 remains unitemized.

The Republican Party may be thought of as the party of corporate interests and big campaign donations, but even the GOP is showing interest in raising money from the little donors.

Ben Carson and Ted Cruz in particular have raised significant funds this way, at levels on par with Clinton. Sixty percent of Carson's individual contributions came from these small donors in the third quarter of 2015, down from 67 percent in the second quarter. That could mean that with his rise in the polls, he's seen as a more serious contender and thus attracting bigger checks.

"Obama proved it out, and the other campaigns are trying to follow what he did," said Jordan Cohen, chief marketing officer of Fluent, an advertising firm that has many political campaign clients. Fluent's expertise is in direct response ads, something a candidate would want, because the most important direct response right now is signing up for a campaign mailing list.

Some of the most active campaigns running ads like this include Clinton, Sanders, and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Cohen said in this early part of the campaign cycle, email sign-ups are the key driver to success. From there, candidates can ask for money and then use it to pay for staff and expensive TV commercials.

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Watch CNBC's "Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate" on Wednesday, October 28. The debate will feature two sets of candidates discussing critical issues facing America today, including job growth, taxes and the health of our economy. Coverage begins at 5pm E.T.