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The story of February (and, it seems likely, March) was Wisconsin. In many ways, Wisconsin is a perfect example of what ActBlue can do. When the story first broke, there was little hint that the conflict between Gov. Walker and Democrats in the state senate would escalate as it did. As the story unfolded, day by day, ActBlue provided a crucial channel for Democrats across the country to support their counterparts in Wisconsin. That story is best told through our February numbers:

Number of contributions 34,500
Total raised $2,228,226.55
Average Contribution size $64.59
Committees receiving money 562
Fundraising pages receiving money 538
Pages created 313

 

Our infrastructure is benchmarked for national political events, and provided to every committee listed on ActBlue. Wisconsin was a particularly concise demonstration of why that way of doing business matters. We put national tools in the hands of a state party as it nucleated what may become one of the defining political struggles of this cycle.

Feb 2007 Feb 2009 Feb 2011 Change
Contributions 4,955 6,613 34,500 422%
Volume ($) $553,238.44 $1,296,968.44 $2,228,226.55 72%
Mean Donation $111.65 $196.12 $64.59 -67%
Committees 107 364 562 54%
Pages Created 103 327 313 -4%
Pages w/ Money 101 326 538 65%

 
And here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for February 2011.

Name Race Donors Dollars
Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee Organization 20,430 $475,502
PCCC Organization 6,368 $83,118
Democracy for America Organization 3,478 $42,227
Daily Kos Organization 2,350 $19,580
Nancy Pelosi CA-08 2,154 $22,588

Guest Post by Steve Gold, General Counsel for ActBlue

Stemming the growing tide of money in politics has become a fool’s errand. Recent opinions out of the Supreme Court have made it clear that the entrenched conservative majority have every intention of expanding the scope of constitutionally protected spending in campaigns, which means even more advertising by independent groups. And the Court’s attitude towards political money has now trickled down to the FEC, which is effectively on strike. Commissioner Donald McGahn, the ideological leader of the deregulating Republican commissioners, recently spent 45 pages (.pdf) excoriating what he considers his Democratic colleagues’ overzealous regulation of political activity going back years. Bolstered by opinions from the Roberts Court, McGahn principally argued one overarching point: The FEC is not permitted to exercise their judgment.

Under the law, the FEC may regulate campaign advertising only if the ad expressly advocates the election or defeat of a federal candidate. The statement issued by McGahn — and by extension the other Republican commissioners, who so often follow his lead — makes it clear that he (and they) will block the enforcement of rules on the books which instruct the Commission to consider contextual factors when trying to determine whether it contains express advocacy, not just the words or images within the four corners of an advertisement. McGahn believes that the rule should be that, unless a special interest runs an advertisement containing the “magic words” listed in Buckley v. Valeo (vote for, elect, support, etc.) or their “functional equivalent,” then the FEC has no business regulating it. Insert advertisement; check for magic words; out pops regulation. Or not.

The problem with this approach is that IBM recently demonstrated (although they may not know it) that the vast majority of political spending will fall outside the rule, and thus, regulation. Some very smart engineers at IBM worked for years developing a very smart computer named Watson that could compete with the very smartest Jeopardy contestants. Like McGahn’s “four corners” rule, initially the engineers programmed Watson to rely on millions and millions of “rules” in order to reason out the answers to questions: water is wet; parents love their children; you smile when you’re happy. They quickly found that, unlike the best Jeopardy players who answer correctly 90% of the time, Watson could only find the right answer 10% of the time by relying on matching the magic words with the rules. It wasn’t until the engineers allowed Watson to look for patterns in multitudes of old Jeopardy questions, providing the context needed to decode a Jeopardy clue, that Watson managed to perform like a real contestant and defeat two of the greatest ever to play the game. No simple rule could ever have provided Watson with the key to that lock.

The essence of a Jeopardy clue, and of political advertising, is complex language: puns, double meanings, allusions. Candidates and their surrogates campaign in poetry, but the Supreme Court and the FEC have said campaigns must be regulated in prose. The inevitable result is that campaign finance reform will only ever be able to restrict a very small portion of the spending done by forces which distort our political discourse, at least until there is a significant change in personnel on the Court. The obvious answer, as Yale Law professor Heather Gerken argues, is to focus on “leveling up” and “using politics to fix politics.” Rather than attempting to keep corrupting money out of the system, we should increase the amount of productive money in the system to neutralize that unproductive money. Exciting new approaches in this vein have been suggested and even introduced in Congress, such as four-to-one matches of small-dollar contributions to publicly financed candidates.

But the potential also exists today — without a federal program that would have to get through a Republican-controlled House and survive future attempts at legislative defunding or dismantling (such as the Presidential public financing system now faces) — to achieve this leveling up through greater engagement and smarter fundraising within the existing private system. For example, in the past few weeks activists and organizers fighting to preserve collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin have taken to the Internet and used the tools we offer at ActBlue to generate twenty-five thousands plus contributions, totaling more than half a million dollars. These contributions came from ordinary people using the existing campaign finance rules to stand up to the Koch brothers’ back room plot to hijack Wisconsin public policy. That is a force that neither requires government approval nor is at the government’s mercy; in fact, it’s protected by the Supreme Court! It’s democracy in its purest form, and it can save our political system.

There are many different approaches to using politics to fix politics, and there will certainly be many more great ideas to come. For decades, conservatives have been working diligently to chip away at the lines drawn by campaign finance reformers to keep money from corrupting our democratic system. Clearly, this conservative effort has gained considerable momentum on the Supreme Court and at the FEC of late, and their momentum is not likely to be reversed anytime soon. That is why now is the perfect time to harness that very momentum and use it to usher in the next big thing in campaign finance reform.

Before we begin, a housekeeping note: I’m going to expand our analysis a bit. While year-over-year growth is important to us as an organization, for observers of politics the more interesting comparison is where we were at the same point in a similar cycle. To provide both views I’m going to compare 2011 to both 2009 and 2007, when we were at the same point in the cycle.

Number of contributions 10,120
Total raised $636,711.13
Average Contribution size $62.92
Committees receiving money 460
Fundraising pages receiving money 447
Pages created 226

 

January 2011 is an interesting case. January is generally a down month for political organizations, a time to take stock and develop a plan for the next year. For ActBlue, January 2011 is the first “true” January we’ve had since 2007. In 2008, the Democratic presidential primaries were in full swing. In 2009, there was a flurry of activity around the inauguration of Barack Obama, and finally in 2010 the special election for the MA-Sen seat. In the following table, change is calculated relative to 2009 numbers.

Jan 2007 Jan 2009 Jan 2011 Change
Contributions 5,934 8,615 10,120 17%
Volume ($) $589,511.09 $1,281,487.37 $636,711.13 -50%
Mean Donation $99.34 $148.75 $62.92 -57%
Committees 86 366 460 25%
Pages Created 85 247 226 -8%
Pages w/ Money 80 278 447 60%

 

And here are the top committees, by number of donors, for January 2011. Since January was a slow month, we’re going to cut to the top four:

Name Race Donors Dollars
PCCC Organization 2,580 $33,082
Blue America PAC Organization 1,074 $12,558
Daily Kos Organization 950 $11,219
Anthony Weiner NY-09 567 $12,916

 

Our first January without a seismic political event shows a number of organizations fundraising for battles down the road. As our February post will show, one of those battles cropped up far sooner than anticipated–ActBlue played a key role in enabling grassroots participation in Wisconsin.

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