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(CNN) —  

In a striking reversal from previous elections, small-dollar donors are providing most of the early money to Democrats seeking the presidency – as candidates seek to capitalize on the energy of their party’s activist base and build a grassroots foundation to sustain them for the long primary slog.

More than half – nearly 55% – of the individual contributions to Democrats during the January-to-March fundraising period came in amounts of $200 or less, a CNN tally of new campaign finance reports shows. By comparison, small-dollar contributions accounted for just 30% of the money Democrats raised in the early months of the 2016 presidential campaign, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

In the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dominated small-dollar fundraising: 77% of the money he raised in the early stretch of the campaign came in small amounts, lapping the 17% that his rival Hillary Clinton took in from small donors.

This time around, Sanders still leads the crowded field of Democrats in small-dollar support, with 84% of his money coming in small amounts. But he has company. Six other Democrats raised more than half their individual donations in small amounts.

“There is broad small-dollar support for Democratic candidates, and the first quarter is simply the tip of the iceberg,” said Anthony Corrado, an expert of campaign finance issues who teaches government at Colby College in Maine.

A small-dollar revolution in the 2018 midterms helped Democrats seize control of the House and sent Republicans scrambling to develop a small-dollar engine of their own to compete with ActBlue, the online fundraising clearinghouse helping drive liberal dollars to progressive candidates and causes. Small donors are valuable because they can be tapped repeatedly for money before hitting the maximum $2,800 contribution limit for the primary.

Campaign finance experts also say the small-donor base-building across the crowded Democratic field offers one way for the party to counter the fundraising juggernaut built by President Donald Trump, who opened his campaign re-election account the day he was sworn into office in January 2017.

Trump raised more than $30 million during the first quarter. Combined with the Republican National Committee and an affiliated fundraising arm, Trump’s political operation started April with $82 million in cash reserves.

But Brendan Glavin, who examines political fundraising at the Campaign Finance Institute, said the early investments by Democrats to reach small donors could “allow them to catch up later.”

“When there’s a Democratic nominee, people will be surprised by the amount of money they are able to raise in a quick fashion,” he said.

Democrats go digital

The first-quarter reports spotlight how much Democrats are targeting small donors and other grassroots supporters.

Digital advertising accounts for some of the biggest line items in candidate reports. Sanders, for instance, spent nearly $1.6 million on digital ads, or nearly a third of his operating expenses. Digital ads accounted for more than half of former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s $2.4 million in operating costs.

“It’s a smart move for any campaign getting off the ground to build out a digital infrastructure,” said Josh Schwerin, a top spokesman for Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC that directed its advertising dollars during the midterms to digital platforms. Its leaders have implored Democratic candidates in recent cycles to shift more of their advertising money online.

Schwerin said building an early digital infrastructure allows candidates to seize on “moments” later in the campaign – whether it’s a quip on the campaign trail that goes viral or a strong debate performance – to persuade and, then, mobilize supporters.

For some candidates, the struggle now centers on joining the debate stage in the first place. Under the Democratic National Committee’s new rules, candidates must receive contributions from 65,000 unique donors in at least 20 states or achieve 1% support in several polls to join the first two debates.

Julián Castro, a former Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration, trails the crowded Democratic field in fundraising. But he spent nearly a quarter of his operating expenses during the January-to-March fundraising period on digital ads, Federal Election Commission records show.

The plaintive Facebook ads he ran this week urged Democrats to help him secure a spot at the debates.

“I know I’m not a Presidential frontrunner. But I wasn’t born a frontrunner and I intend to continue working my way up,” said Castro, who rose from an impoverished upbringing in San Antonio, Texas, to attend Harvard Law School and become the mayor of his hometown.

“So I’m humbly asking: Will you rush $50 before the midnight deadline to help me qualify for the Democratic Presidential debates?”