For the last couple weeks, it’s been profitable to donate to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s presidential campaign. New donors stood to gain a handsome profit of $19, since those who sent at least $1 were promised a $20 Visa or Mastercard mailed to their address by the Burgum campaign in exchange for their donation.

Burgum’s gift card giveaway: $20 gift card for $1 campaign donation

The gift card giveaway has cost the campaign hundreds of thousands, but it helped Burgum cross the 40,000 unique-donor threshold to help him secure a microphone at the first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee next month. There, he would have a chance to reach his largest audience yet. Burgum’s small donors skyrocketed after the new promotional ploy: within just 48 hours of starting the promotion last week, the campaign had 20,000 new donors.

The giveaways are an insignificant cost for the billionaire businessman who sold his software company to Microsoft in 2001, and lent his campaign $10 million in the last quarter. 

Burgum announced the news on CNN Wednesday morning — and he said he’s not done giving donors money. 

“We passed the 40,000 mark, and I know we’ve got more gift cards to give. We promised we’d give out 50,000 gift cards,” Burgum said.

Candidates who’ve met donor requirements for first GOP primary presidential debate

Burgum is now the seventh candidate to meet the donor threshold in the Republican National Committee’s list of qualifications to secure a spot on the debate stage on Aug. 23. Those requirements include receiving more than 200 donations from 20 different states, in addition to acquiring 40,000 unique donors. Other candidates who’ve met donor qualifications and are on track to appear at the debate include former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Ambassador the U.N. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

The North Dakota governor must still hit polling levels set by the party to cinch his spot (candidates must poll at 1% in three RNC-sanctioned national polls, or hit 1% in two non-sanctioned national polls, in addition to two polls from key states.)  But the dark-horse candidate has made progress on that requirement this week, as well.

In a poll Wednesday by the University of New Hampshire, Burgum had 6% support of likely Republican primary voters in the state, tying Christie for fourth place in the poll and exceeding the performance of 2024 rivals Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley.  It’s the highest polling yet for Burgum, according to FiveThirtyEight’s collection, but he’s still a long way back from the leaders of the pack. Trump still loomed large in the state with the support of 37% of those polled.

Are Doug Burgum’s $20 gift cards to donors legal?

Some legal experts, including Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance attorney, have said Burgum’s giveaway scheme looks like a violation of campaign finance law.

Specifically, Ryan argued the scheme could violate a federal law against using someone else’s name to make donations, a rule against “straw donors.” The argument is that Burgum could be viewed as donating to his own campaign while using other people’s names, since the $20 gift card is a sort of reimbursement for a donation of as little as $1.

But former Federal Election Commission Chair Lee Goodman told CBS News that he thinks Burgum’s practice is likely lawful.

“Obviously anytime you undertake a novel fundraising practice,  it’s natural to raise legal questions, but I think they would be resolved, if they are raised, in Burgum’s favor.”

Goodman called concerns that the gift cards trip up the “straw donor” rules “a really silly legal theory in this context.”

“A straw donor scheme is a secretive scheme where one individual or organization reimburses contributions by a group of other people in order to hide the identity of the original source of the funds or exceed contribution limits for that individual,” Goodman explained. “There are none of those hallmarks applicable to this situation. They’re doing it out in the open. And the money is of no consequence. So there’s no corruption potential.”

Other unusual donor marketing tactics

Other candidates in the 2024 cycle have also turned to unusual marketing tactics to boost their donor numbers as well: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has promised to give donors a chance to win a sweepstakes for tickets to Lionel Messi’s opening game in Florida, and Vivek Ramaswamy launched an effort to give anyone who raises money for his campaign 10% of what they take in from other donors.