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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. 

In yesterday's Washington Post, T.W. Farnam apparently thought it would be illuminating to compare grassroots donors to addicts. The article is the other half of a classic D.C. lose-lose attack on the grassroots: if you don't give, you're a feckless mass who can't be trusted to come through for candidates, and if you do give you're rubes at mercy of canny political operatives.

Unconsidered in the article is the apparently outlandish possibility that grassroots donors are making their own decisions about who to support–that they aren't just money pinatas to be beaten by enterprising staffers when cash gets low. Crazy, I know. 

Beyond the condescending frame and patronizing tone, the article still has a huge problem: what's the alternative? Over the past two years we've seen a marked erosion of campaign finance law, always to the benefit of monied interests. If grassroots donors don't step up to provide a counterweight to that ever-increasing concentration of power, the end result will be the total capture of our electoral system by those interests. Voters will just be the people who show up on election day to ratify a choice that was made long before ballots were printed.

And that's the real reason why grassroots giving matters: by engaging in the fundraising process, grassroots donors are taking ownership of their political future. To use a well-worn GOP chestnut, they have "skin in the game." Grassroots donors raised over half a million dollars for Kathy Hochul (D-NY) and helped her pull out an unlikely win in NY-26. That kind of participation fulfills the promise of American democracy, and shouldn't be treated like some kind of hideous affliction brought on by the digital age. 

Over at DailyKos, David Nir has a post up asking "what ever happened to the right's version of ActBlue?" It's a good question. As David shows, the right's attempts to replicate our success have resulted in failure after failure. (He misses my all-time favorite, StandUpRed, which is a word-for-word copy of our website.)

Part of the answer to that question lies in the surreal tale of ActRight, as related by Republican Louis J. Marinelli. In brief, ActRight was apparently intended to be an astroturf arm of NOM, based out of a vacant lot in a non-existent area code in Washington D.C. And the underlying weirdness of ActRight speaks to the central tension that's currently roiling the right: their keen appreciation for the symbolic power of grassroots politics and their near-total aversion to it in practice.

The GOP establishment welcomed movement conservatism and the religious right into the Republican fold in the early 80s to help them compete in federal elections. The logic was straightforward: a little lipservice to social conservative rhetoric would give them the votes they'd need to roll back tax rates on corporations and the top income brackets. And though the Rockefeller Republicans who masterminded that Faustian bargain are now all but extinct, that was pretty much the game until now.

But the groups ushered in under Reagan weren't content with their lot as rubes to be shaken down for votes, and slowly increased their clout in congress. As Nate Silver has shown, in 2010 these very conservative voters turned out at a much higher rate than moderates or liberals, finally capturing the Republican Party.

Today, issues like the debt ceiling have put the conservative grassroots at loggerheads with Republican business elites. Moderate Republicans have nowhere to go. They'll be punished for providing anything less than total victory, and punished all the harder if a compromise agreement involves concessions to Democrats. However, if they don't compromise, they'll send the economy back into recession, alienate their fundraising base, and severely damage their presidential prospects. 

A tool like ActBlue for the right only worsens that problem. It would empower exactly the sort of candidates and donors the GOP establishment doesn't want empowered. Their highly insular fundraising networks are one of the only ways they have to keep the wolves at bay; their stranglehold on congressional leadership positions is another. Access to the former is the key to the latter. Until the tension between GOP activists and elites is resolved, Republican attempts to replicate our platform will continue to founder, or limp along as particularly sad patches of astroturf.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post broke the news that the American Action Network, a Republican "charitable organization" along the lines of American Crossroads GPS, was financed entirely by 11 checks, with 82% of its funding coming from just three donors.

AAN and Crossroads GPS are not required to disclose donor information and can protect donors from any blowback that might result from their decision to influence the political process or the specific ways in which AAN/Crossroads GPS employ their money to accomplish that goal. As a result, donors get to have their cake and eat it too: they're largely invisible to the American voter, but highly influential within the small community of policymakers that make legislative decisions. It's an appealing proposition.

There are a number of significant downsides to this arrangement, however. Before I get into them, I'd like to be clear: there's no problem with giving money to political candidates. There's no problem with giving a lot of money to political candidates. There is a problem with giving undisclosed money to political candidates. 

At the most basic level, disclosure is a mental shortcut for voters. It's a way for them to consider the source, to divine what interests believe supporting this candidate is in their interest. If that information isn't available, it undermines democratic accountability. If voters can't get access to any information about who is backing whom, their role in the political process becomes little more than a patina of consent on top of a structure they are prevented from informing themselves about.

So you have a situation in which, over the long term, rational actors are undermining the very system they depend on. Politicians need to finance their campaigns and want to outraise their opponents. Their donors want to insulate themselves from the consequences of their speech. The tragic irony is that in doing so, they are sawing the foundations of a functioning democracy–information and accountability–out from underneath themselves. Left to its own devices, the emerging situation becomes a race to the bottom: who can raise the most money while revealing the least information about its source. It's not hard to see how that worsens what Prof. Larry Lessig calls "institutional corruption," and ultimately paralyzes our government. 

That's why what we do here at ActBlue is so important. Our platform gives small donors a stake in the process and enables them to make themselves felt in major races, while also preserving the transparency that's key to a stable democracy. That transparency, in turn, lets donors assess the impact of their donations in aggregate, which makes them more likely to give again. In short, our virtuous cycle counteracts the vicious cycle kickstarted by Citizens United. 

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant, recently diagnosed the ills that plague mobile giving:

it can be pretty frustrating watching these solutions get tripped up in the bureaucratic thicket of the FEC, or the closed ecosystem of the wireless carriers — with all the architectural limits they carry that the free Internet does not.

He argues that the point-of-sale constraint of Square, SMS payment limits, and FEC disclosure requirements are the major obstacles to mobile giving. Here's the problem: simplicity and ease of use are important, but the real limit Ruffini is bumping up against–by his own admission–is the lack of scalable infrastructure on the right. That lack forces Ruffini into awkward spaces, like calling for mobile operating systems to update their OS, or the creation of new apps to facilitate political giving. It's not that these are impossible, or not worth doing, but that their value is unknown relative to the costs they impose on developers and carriers.

Fortunately, over here we've got that problem solved.

Want to collect donations in real time? Text or email your audience with a link to an ActBlue page. And, unlike asking people to download apps, collecting email/phone information at political events is pretty commonplace, as are email solicitations. Checking mail is a core functionality of almost any mobile data device, be it smartphone, iPad or laptop. Devices will proliferate, change and converge, but email will almost certainly remain. The ubiquitous nature of email means people don't have to leave their comfort zone to give, provided you offer them a simple way to do so. And, because we've already borne the costs and seen the results of our innovation, we're in a better position to negotiate the sort of partnerships that Ruffini outlines.

In short, ActBlue didn't need to build, "something that can create a reality distortion field" (Orwellian!) to produce $174+ million for Democrats. We took a means that already existed (email/websites) and made it easy for people to apply it to a new space (political fundraising), while building in the flexibility that would allow it to grow and improve with changing circumstances (not easy!). As a result, ActBlue is now both an invaluable source of funds and a giant proving ground for candidates and best fundraising practices.

Finally, an insidery point: Ruffini is a consultant who necessarily makes his living by selling his insights and strategies. ActBlue is something fundamentally different. Because we're a political nonprofit that makes our tools available for free to all Democrats, we're creating of economies of scale that don't exist on the right. When we innovate, thousands of Democratic campaigns, consultants and committees benefit, and they don't have to pay a cent. I imagine Ruffini's innovations carry a far higher pricetag–man's got to eat–which hinders their adoption.

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.

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