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A recent Seattle Times story on Maria Cantwell noted that, 

By far the biggest single source of Cantwell's fundraising last year was ActBlue, a political-action committee that acts as an online conduit for individuals who want to give to Democratic candidates. ActBlue "bundled" $365,000 for Cantwell.

Oh, hey scare quotes. If you check out Cantwell's ActBlue hub, you'll see she's received 7,333 donations through ActBlue totaling $750,000. That works out to about $100 a pop. Those donations were made by folks (real people!) who decided they wanted to support Cantwell's campaign and the money was disclosed to the FEC. So, we've got lots of people choosing to participate in a campaign, and doing so transparently. Terrifying. 

Let's return to those scare quotes. The author of the piece uses them to imply something inappropriate about small-dollar fundraising, as if totaling up grassroots donations were somehow the equivalent of, say, the K Street Project. It's ridiculous. Enabling small dollar donors to participate transparently and consequentially in the fundraising process only enhances democratic accountability. It's the opposite of the shadowy system of billionaire-financed campaigning that's kept the Republican nomination process going for so long. Bundling our "bundling" in with that sort of fundraising reflects a profound ignorance of what ActBlue actually does, and damages the credibility of the piece as a whole. 

It also reflects a real blindness about the role of money in politics. Money that comes from individuals and is disclosed in a way voters and reporters can access is hardly a corrupting influence. It's just another way for (actual) people to express themselves within the political process; the fact that ~$100 individual donations through ActBlue account for the lion's share of Maria Cantwell's fundraising is something to be celebrated, not scorned.

A few weeks ago, Nick Confessore of the New York Times wrote a piece about the reluctance of small donors to return to the Obama fold. Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call recently examined the slowdown in traditional fundraising: major bundlers and PACs. For Confessore, the fact that President Obama has to work harder for small donors stems from his sagging popularity. For Toeplitz, it's a sign of the down economy that the deep-pocketed can't dole out the sort of financial largesse they used to.

Both of these theses have some real problems.

Confessore runs into the problem that conventional methods of reportage are a terrible fit for assessing as broad a category as grassroots donors. Dozens of interviews are a poor way to figure out what's going on in a population that numbers in the millions. Some people are undoubtedly disappointed in President Obama, but many more may not have tuned into the process yet. In 2007, Democrats were where Republicans are today: focused on a contested primary process to replace a President that was wildly unpopular with their base. It's no surprise that it's harder to engage the Democratic grassroots now; whether that will remain the case is anybody's guess. Finally, it's not as if the President has some special claim to these donors–they're a political constituency like any other. Even if there were reason to accept Confessore's thesis without question, we should be celebrating the fact that political actors have to work for their support, rather than ignoring it as irrelevant or taking it for granted. Today, there are lines of accountability and financial interdependence between legislators and grassroots donors that didn't exist ten years ago, and that's a good thing.

The Toeplitz piece is a bit harder to find bright spots in, as it takes the same basic error and adds a laundry-list of excuses for a poor fundraising quarter. Hurricane Irene, the debt ceiling melee, the (crippling!) impact of the economy on our nation's wealthiest donors, and even the Jewish New Year all come in for blame for the lower-than-average haul, as if that were the important aspect of those events.

I bring these articles up because ActBlue has access to a pretty good cross-section of small donor activity. Every day, we process contributions to state and federal candidates from across the country. That immunizes us to some extent from the problems these articles run in to. In the spirit of lending a little clarity to the debate, here are our numbers from Q3 2009, and Q3 2011:

'09: $9,368,191 from 105,266 donors to 1,160 committees. 

'11: $10,230,421 from 199,595 donors to 1,388 committees. 

Hardly the declines we'd expect to see if Confessore and Toeplitz are right. Grassroots donors are more engaged in the fundraising process than ever before. Even if the sources Toeplitz quotes are right, it may not be the case that fundraising has declined, rather that its character and the methods used to go it are changing and the political sector is lagging a bit in recognizing that trend. As political fundraising becomes increasingly digital and grassroots, the value of traditional methods may lose a little of their centrality. (They'll still be important!) That's not a bad thing–it will create a political system that's more dynamic and has fewer barriers to entry. There will be more voices and more choices for voters to listen to and weigh, and that's the essence of representative democracy. 

On August 24, the AK-Sen primary was a forgone conclusion. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), a 1.5 term incumbent–in 2002 her father appointed her to his Senate seat when he won the governorship, the very definition of nepotism–would win her primary battle against Joe Miller and cruise to victory in the general.

By August 25, 2010, the race had completely changed. Murkowski trailed the insurgent Miller by several thousand votes, and a recount looked imminent. There was talk of a libertarian ticket run for Murkowski, and then a write-in campaign. And while the GOP fumbled and fulminated, Scott McAdams, the Democratic nominee, quietly started fundraising. Two weeks later, McAdams has raised over $150k on ActBlue, and is halfway to Sen. Begich's 2008 total. Several members of Sen. Begich's staff have also joined the McAdams campaign, and the Senator told TPM he isn't bashful about helping McAdams raise money.

The point being, infrastructure matters, and it matters most when the calendar is compressed and the difference between victory and defeat lies in how quickly candidates adapt to unexpected events (See: Allen, George). Sen. Begich was considered a long shot to win as late as November 5, 2008–the day after election day–and today he's helping another dark horse make a competitive run at Alaska's other senate seat.

In short, ActBlue performs two crucial functions in the political world. First, we allow candidates to demonstrate their fundraising prowess to the powers-that-be in real time, helping them build legitimacy both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

But arguably more important in a world of 24-hour news cycles, we help candidates "win the morning," as it were. ActBlue enables candidates to capitalize on missteps by their opponents or changes in the political terrain at unmatched speed (Rob Miller's $800k+ "You Lie" haul, a year ago today). We do that by minimizing one of the less-covered aspects of political fundraising: transit time. Getting money from the donor to the campaign takes time, be it direct mail or online fundraising. Then, since political campaigns can rarely get anything on credit, it takes yet more time to pay the media buyers and film the advertisements. Cumulatively, that adds up to a significant delay between the donation and the realization of its political potential.

At ActBlue, we've reduced that delay to almost nothing by wiring major federal campaigns–McAdams among them–their ActBlue money. With ActBlue wires, the money that a campaign raises on ActBlue today is in their bank account and ready to be spent tomorrow. They can translate late money–or any money, for that matter–into media and ground presence almost instantaneously. That leads to more agile campaigns, timely advertisements, and eventually victory. It's another Democratic advantage that the GOP can't replicate, and in today's political climate we can use each and every one.

Our latest monthly report on ActBlue activity was just a teaser. Today is the filing deadline for federal campaigns and committees, and we’re releasing our Q1/2010 numbers. More real time numbers! Fewer hours spent sifting through FEC reports! Without further ado, the ActBlue Q1/2010 Report:

Number of contributions 109,891
Total raised $10,182,793.61
Average contribution size $92.66
# of committees receiving money 1,591
# of fundraising pages receiving money 1,688
New fundraising pages created 2,189

 

Every one of the above metrics reported an increase over the previous quarter, except for the average contribution size, which, reflecting the arrival of more small dollar donors, dropped by 20%. As we did in our previous stats post, we’ll look at the Q1/2010 results in light of the Q1/2008 numbers:

Q1 2008 Q1 2010 Change
Contributions 52,151 109,891 111%
Volume ($) $6,945,913.73 $10,182,793.61 47%
Mean Donation $133.19 $92.66 -30%
Committees 992 1,591 60%
Pages Created 1,469 2,189 49%
Pages w/ Money 959 1,688 76%

 

Incredible. More than double the number of contributions for the same period in the fundraising cycle two years ago--a presidential year–leading to a 50% increase in the amount donated to Democratic candidates through ActBlue. 1,600 Democratic campaigns and committees got a check from ActBlue. For scale, there are 535 voting members in Congress, and on the federal level alone ActBlue sent money to 627 committees.

Now let’s take a look at the top 10 recipient campaigns and committees of Q1/2010, ranked by number of donors. Making the list were two familiar national progressive organizations, four US Senate candidates, and four Congressional candidates.

Martha Coakley took the top candidate spot thanks to the special election to replace Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Bill Halter, the AR-Sen primary challenger to incumbent senator Blanche Lincoln took fourth, while Sen. Bennet in CO and Sen. Gillibrand in NY took 5th and 7th respectively. The top House recipient was Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, whose ActBlue numbers surpassed Sen. Gillibrand’s and landed him 6th in the rankings.

Name

 

PCCC – Progressive Change Campaign CommitteeType

OrganizationDonors

17,091Raised

$192,967.67 Martha CoakleyMA-Sen, 201013,884$1,110,150.23 Democracy for AmericaOrganization12,066$92,395.08 Bill HalterAR-Sen, 201011,888$390,113.82 Michael BennetCO-Sen, 20108,452$119,364.08 Alan GraysonFL-08, 20107,520$121,794.81 Kirsten GillibrandNY-Sen, 20106,323$48,134.68 Anthony WeinerNY-09, 20106,007$155,387.52 Chellie PingreeME-01, 20104,145$190,124.60 Jared PolisCO-02, 20103,922$28,860.93

Looking at that data another way, we can rank the top 10 recipient campaigns and committees by total dollars raised. This adds a few new candidates to the list like Dan Seals in Illinois, MA-Gov. Deval Patrick, DE-Sen. candidate Chris Coons, Gavin Newsom for Lt.-Gov of CA, and PA-Sen primary challenger and current Congressman Joe Sestak.

Name

Martha
CoakleyType

MA-Sen, 2010$ Raised

$1,110,150.23Bill
HalterAR-Sen, 2010$390,113.82Dan
SealsIL-10, 2010$262,260.48Deval
PatrickMA-Gov, 2010$243,017.59Chris
CoonsDE-Sen, 2010$218,044.99Gavin
NewsomCA-Lt Gov, 2010$201,199.00Joe
SestakPA-Sen, 2010$200,852.82PCCC Organization $192,967.67Chellie
PingreeME-01, 2010$190,124.60Anthony
WeinerNY-09, 2010$155,387.52

Last but certainly not least is our report on the top 10 fundraising pages in Q1/2010, ranked by number of donors. These reflect the grassroots activity driving donors to give over the past three months.

Not surprisingly, every one of the pages below except for one has an average contributions size well below the average for the 1st Quarter. Half of the pages include embedded video and three include ActBlue fundraising thermometers. These pages are a source of good examples for how to design and market successful fundraising drives that any user can start on ActBlue.

Name Donors Raised Average
senateheroes-letter 8234 $160,938.49 $19.54
do-it-for-ted 7076 $693,854.37 $98.05
weinercdthc02242010 5232 $109,801.34 $20.98
dumplincoln 5006 $116,478.85 $23.26
polispingreegrayson 4008 $111,877.36 $27.91
pelosi-tv-ad 3576 $68,649.03 $19.19
2010pccc 3402 $66,266.55 $19.47
pccc_main 3128 $71,502.66 $22.85
pccchalterfield 1968 $32,449.24 $16.48
orangetoblue2010 1850 $66,934.74 $36.18

A week ago, Ben Smith of POLITICO broke a story about an RNC fundraising presentation held in Washington D.C. The presentation featured a slide of President Obama as the Joker under the heading "the Evil Empire," bracketed by caricatures of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (available here, in .pdf format). A number of other slides contained quotes like "What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the House or the Senate…? Save the country from trending toward socialism!" and urged RNC fundraisers to promote visceral giving based on "fear, extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration."

What's particularly striking about the RNC presentation is the tacit admission that, to paraphrase an old conservative bête noire, the only thing they have to sell is fear itself.

The reaction to that revelation was a collective shrug, as if that sort of fear-mongering were an ineluctable element of grassroots fundraising. It's not, and I ought to know. I built the grassroots fundraising program that sustained ActBlue across 2009–a slow year for political giving. Those donations, drawn from our users, funded the enhancements that enabled us to grow 84% in 2009.

When discussing grassroots fundraising, it's critical to understand the difference between creating urgency and sowing fear. Successful asks underscore the need for the target to give, but negative emotions are hardly the only way to get there. In writing our own asks, I've talked about increasing the influence of grassroots donors and building infrastructure more than I've mentioned Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, and donors responded better to the former. In fact, our most successful asks are those in which we demonstrate the relevance of grassroots actions on ActBlue to a larger Democratic agenda, or show them how the numbers they put up on ActBlue drive news stories.

In short, there are other ways to appeal to donors; by accepting the fear-based paradigm of the RNC as the sine qua non of grassroots fundraising we're buying into a false equivalence. The grassroots campaigns that take place on ActBlue employ a variety of fundraising strategies, often aimed at a specific goal. Some of the largest grassroots fundraising efforts on ActBlue have focused on granular policy details.

There's a cynical take on all of this that says it all reduces to
fear–fear that Republicans will win, fear that we won't get the
policies we want, fear that our voices will be drowned out by special
interests in Washington. That's a remarkably broad generalization to
apply to hundreds of thousands of ActBlue donors, one that is contemptuous of
the diverse reasons that move us to participate in American politics.

And, apparently, it's a view that the RNC subscribes to. The RNC strategy is built around juvenile imagery and a flair for terrifying GOP donors with the threat of a nebulous, abstract adversary–in this case, a wholly irrelevant political ideology. And rather than give their donors any idea what their money will be used for, the RNC leverages terms of art like "patriotic duty" and "front line mentality" to power an agenda of endless obstruction that negatively impacts the very donors they want to court.

In short, grassroots fundraising on ActBlue reflects the diversity of our user base, while the RNC seeks uniformity through terror. (An objectively socialist approach!) If we assume that these strategies are identical, we're neglecting the difference between real and phony populism, between framing and fiction.

On Monday, Democrat Bill Halter, currently the Lt. Governor of Arkansas, entered the AR-Sen race, challenging the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Later that day, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas and NBC's Chuck Todd had a brief exchange on Twitter about Bill Halter's fundraising numbers.

Chuck Todd:

Would be a big statement RT @markos: Netroots funding for Bill Halter (Netroots + MoveOn) now just shy of 500k

Markos:

Getting there. RT @chucktodd Progressives as fired up for Halter as Lamont RT @markos MoveOn+ActBlue just hit 500k for Bill Halter

Today, MoveOn reported raising nearly $600,000 for Bill Halter, while ActBlue displays a total of $170,000 and counting, raised by groups like the PCCC and DailyKos. In other words, the statement has been made. Now the hard part: what does it mean?

First, some context: Sen. Blanche Lincoln has a war chest of around $5M. Or, put slightly differently, Bill Halter raised 10% of an incumbent Senator's war chest in one day. If his supporters reach their goal of $1M [Edit--Halter reached $1M in 48 hrs] by the end of this week, that'll be 20% of her funds. Moreover, Halter's success produced a flurry of media coverage, further elevating his profile. Finally, the AFL-CIO committed to $3M in expenditures on Halter's behalf. As a result, Sen. Lincoln will have to spend some of her money to fend off what looks destined to be a well-funded primary challenge from a candidate with significant name recognition both in Arkansas and beyond.

Someone ought to send a memo to Chris Matthews, who lamented late last year that the Netroots weren't grown-up Democrats:

I don’t consider them Democrats, I consider them netroots, and they’re different. And if I see that they vote in every election or most elections, I’ll be worried. But I’m not sure that they’re regular grown-up Democrats… They get their giggles from sitting in the backseat and bitching.

Yet today we have an insurgent candidate propelled to the forefront of national politics in one day by the Netroots and MoveOn. That's a far cry from the sort of Monday-morning quarterbacking that so upset Chris Matthews in late 2009, and it's worth revisiting why that $770,000 boost happened.

Whether it's political campaigns or media outlets, the organizations that make a splash are the ones that have mastered the breakneck pace and inclusive nature of the internet. And yes, I have to count Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) among those success stories. As Americans, our admiration for the spectacle of political participation is innate, as evidenced by the breathless coverage accorded to the Tea Party movement. However, in our increasingly digital age, political participation shouldn't be solely the province of people waving signs. The communities that exist online are every bit as vital, contentious and arguably more diverse than the arbitrarily large crowds that descend on the National Mall. 

Halter's primary challenge represents the political emergence of these groups into an arena that, until recently, was the sole province of Chris Matthews' "grown-up Democrats." It's not a trend that can be reversed, either. The organizations involved know they have the reach and scope to affect national politics, and after Rob Miller, Alan Grayson and Bill Halter, candidates know it too.

That change owes a lot to the infrastructure that ActBlue built over the last five years. Without the means to translate the Democratic passion of these communities into language that politicians can understand: campaign funds. And you can't build it in the moment, either. You have to have robust structures in place ahead of time, so that when the surge comes you don't miss out on a single dollar. ActBlue handled both public option pushes, Rob Miller, and, heck, even Martha Coakley. Our work has enabled new voices to emerge, and emerge powerfully. It's the beginning of a structural shift in American politics, more powerful and enduring than any Supreme Court decision.

*Ah yes, the much-lamented horse race metaphor. I didn't see anyone else making one, so I figured I'd be the first. Considered but rejected: "Halter Loosed" and "Halter Given Free Rein."

I've talked about the central role that transparency plays getting your fundraising momentum noticed as it's happening. As confirmation, today we have this article by Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post on the gathering pace of small-dollar fundraising around the public option:

Two freshman Democrats who launched a Senate effort to revive the public option have been rewarded by small online donors for their activism. ActBlue, which raises funds and is closely associated with the blogosphere, has seen more than $150,000 come in from more than 8,000 individual donors. That's an average contribution of less than $20.

I'd like to point out a couple of things here: first, ActBlue didn't raise that money. We built the infrastructure that enabled the PCCC/DfA push to rack up $150,000 in 48 hrs, but it wouldn't have happened without the efforts of the candidates and organizations involved and the response from their donors. Each of those things–infrastructure, organizing, response–are necessary but not sufficient conditions for this type of success. Second, they're getting press coverage precisely because Ryan was able to see their numbers. Without that ability, the story doesn't get written. That's the difference between ActBlue and Generic Payment Processor X. Back to the article:

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
individually raised $70,000 and $40,000, respectively. Bennet, who is
facing a primary challenge in Colorado, led the effort, circulating
what became known as the "Bennet letter," which called on Senate
Majority Leader Reid (D-Nev.) to include a public option in a final
health care bill moved through reconciliation, which only requires a
majority vote. Gillibrand was an original cosigner, along with freshman
Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Two progressive groups that led the organizing effort also
benefited. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and
Democracy for America each raised over 20,000 from more than 4,000
donors, for an average contribution of $5.

As late as last week, the consensus was that the public option was dead. Whatever the final outcome of this round of legislation, the ability of these groups to revive a progressive idea, generate buy-in from vulnerable legislators, and buttress that effort with small-dollar donations from real, non-corporation Americans should be considered a signal of things to come.

Yesterday, Nancy Scola asked whether the Netroots could affect the legislative process, and I pointed out that transparent, online fundraising is critical to, in her words, "[pushing] Democrats out in favor of a progressive priority, and then make
the experience a pleasant one for the senator or representative." On the heels of that conversation comes Brian Beutler's TPMDC piece, How Outside Groups And Vulnerable Dems Gave The Public Option A New Pulse. Read it. The story is aptly summarized by a Senate aide, who said:

I would credit a lot the Netroots and then working with members who
had already been previously supportive, and members who have been in
tough positions for re-election.

According to Beutler's sources, the public option was revived by organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Democracy for America (DfA), in concert with with Sen. Bennet and Sen. Gillibrand, and Reps. Pingree and Polis.

ActBlue has helped knit that diverse coalition together. The PCCC, DfA, and Sens. Gillibrand and Bennet are at the top of ActBlue's hot candidates and committees list, with Bennet banking nearly 1.5M on ActBlue. The PCCC and DfA were #1 and 3 on ActBlue's list of top 10 committees of 2009, separated only by the overnight (literally) success of Rob Miller. Rep. Pingree raised $730,000 on ActBlue for her 2008 election, while Rep. Polis came in at $510,000.

Now, I don't mean to shortchange the tremendous work that PCCC and DfA have done around this issue. But their ability to convince vulnerable legislators to work the inside game has a lot to do with their demonstrated fundraising power. In other words, their persuasive power is rooted in the idea that there is a cash constituency out there for progressive ideas, an idea that ActBlue has helped make clear, time and time again.

On TPM's editor's blog, Josh Marshall mused

Just a couple weeks ago, not only did reform seem pretty much dead but
any thought that a public option would be included in a deal seemed
pretty much crazy. And yet, out of the blue, through a pretty organic
and somewhat fortuitous process, it's back.

I think you have to give ActBlue credit for helping make that process possible.

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands
bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method
and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above
all, try something.

That was President Frankin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and his last injunction, “but above all, try something,” seems to have reached Washington D.C. almost 80 years after it was first uttered. On Monday the White House released a healthcare reform plan, and both President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have signaled their willingness to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills through–you guessed it–reconciliation.

That movement toward a majority vote on healthcare reform didn’t happen by accident, nor can the re-introduction of the public option be attributed purely to the subtle and inscrutable shifts of power within our nation’s capitol. I happen to think that Nancy Scola, on Techpresident, has it right:

The targeted, sophisticated grassroots drive now unfolding to provide political cover to the nearly two dozen Senate Democrats who signed the so-called Bennet letter, calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include the public option in the great debate over health care reconciliation, is shaping up to be a something of a case study in how the “netroots” might force change by tweaking the legislative process as it functions today. The trick? To push Democrats out in favor of a progressive priority, and then make the experience a pleasant one for the senator or representative. Reward what is, in the eyes of the movement, good behavior, and create an environment where progressive political risk doesn’t necessarily trigger in politicians a negative response.

Or, to return to FDR:

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Larry Lessig’s idea of an economy of influence in Washington D.C. What Nancy underscores in her post is the beginning of an important and very welcome revision to that dynamic:

  • The Old Way: Lobbyists place phone calls to legislators, tantalizing them with the prospect of special interest money for future elections and, perhaps, a career as a lobbyist should the election go against them. The price of that deal? Servicing the policy needs of a given special interest.
  • The New Way: Americans advocating for the public option (a policy they support) where everyone can see it, in real time. As for the price, well, it’s hard to imagine that giving the American people the same voice in Washington that special interests already have is much of a burden.

Underlying our work at ActBlue is the belief that if you give Americans a means to speak to power, they will. In two days, 7,500 Americans have doled out almost $150,000 to support the public option. Last summer, another drive supporting the public option raised $400,000 in a week. In the midst of the worst recession since FDR urged Washington to “try something,” those accomplishments aren’t just news, they’re a testament to the faith that Americans have in our democracy.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said:

We face a deficit of trust–deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve.

In light of that statement, the early release of the White House healthcare plan and the televised summit with the GOP on Thursday confirm the basic intuition we have about our system of government: if we speak, we ought to be heard. And if we speak the language of Washington ($), we will be.

For more than forty years, everyone who works in
Massachusetts politics has done so in the shadow of  Senator Edward Kennedy and his passing will do little to
change that. ActBlue in particular owes him a profound debt of gratitude. When many in the
Democratic Party had yet to see the potential of ActBlue, Senator Kennedy
offered us his support and became an early champion of our goals.

We were proud to call him our senator and humbled to have
his blessing. Today, we celebrate his accomplishments and mourn his loss with
the rest of the country.

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