The Spookular Option

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.

Unbridled Success*

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."

Transparency and the Public Option

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.

ActBlue and the Legislative Process

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.

“Now Make Me Do It.”

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.

So Here’s To You, Edward Kennedy

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.

Two More ActBlue Democrats to Run in November

picture_1 Washington state’s
first top-two primary election was held yesterday, August 19, and
ActBlue superstar Darcy Burner has offered further proof of her
campaign’s building momentum in the weeks leading to the November
general elections.

Burner came within three points of Republican incumbent Dave
Reichert in yesterday’s primary, and left Reichert with fewer votes
than were cast for the three Democratic candidates. Burner and Reichert
will advance to the November round. (Washington State is one of few
jurisdictions to offer what’s called a ‘top-two primary,’ wherein the
two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the general,
regardless of party affiliation.)

Burner has been one of ActBlue’s most successful candidates,
raising more than $420,000 this cycle from a whopping 11,300 donors. For more about Burner and the
race, see our video blog post from last week. 

gary_trauner

In Wyoming, Gary Trauner is officially the Democratic
nominee for
Congress. Trauner, a former elected official, has served as chair of
his school board and on the Jackson Hole Land Trust. An accomplished
entrepreneur, Trauner co-founded Cell Response Formulation and
OneWest.net and served as Vice President of Teton Trust Company. Trauner, who has been using ActBlue since 2006, has raised more than $215,000 on ActBlue this cycle. He
will stand against former State Treasurer Cynthia Lummis in November.

Congratulations to Darcy Burner, Gary Trauner, and their campaigns. And congratulations to all of you. Keep up the good work!

*ActBlue does not take sides in contested primaries, and does not endorse particular candidates for office.

Obama and Public Finance

ActBlue just released the following statement in response to the Obama campaign’s decision to opt out of the public financing system.

Barack Obama announced this week that his presidential campaign would be opting out of the public financing system.

The decision has been met with considerable, and we think misguided, consternation in the press.

As delightful as it can be to note, and be noted for noting, apparent
contradictions in the actions of public figures, we fear that the media
are missing the broader point here: that in an era of extraordinarily
complex politics, this most recent decision of the Obama campaign
undergirds, rather than undercuts, the campaign’s unwavering commitment
to participatory democracy.

Public financing could work, in a closed system, and it may well be
that such a system would carry certain advantages. But the system, as
it exists, is not closed; funds from special interests often drown out
public monies.

Recognizing this, the Obama campaign chose to opt out of public
financing. The grand irony, of course, is that it would have been
Obama’s other, and far more virtuous, choices-the decision not to
accept money from special interests and lobbyists, for instance-that
would have placed him at a disadvantage relative to the Republican
apparatus, which has not made similar commitments. Had Obama not opted
out, Democrats would have suffered from the apparently virtuous
constraints of the public financing system, gaining perhaps in public
perception but losing ground to a Republican machine that carried in
one hand the banner of campaign finance reform and in the other great
wads of checks from lobbyists.

To accept public financing, in Obama’s case, would have been to choose
a strategy because it looked virtuous. But there is nothing virtuous
about martyring a campaign for the passing glory of a good news cycle.
There is glory in victory, and there is virtue in playing fair. We hope
that the public sees this decision for what it is: a commitment to the
idea that the financing of elections should be the province of the
many, not of the few.

Jonathan Zucker
Executive Director

       
       
       
       
       
       

Democratic Fundraising on ActBlue Tops $50 Million

We hit a new record yesterday, and we’re pretty excited. That’s right: $50 million raised for Democrats since 2004. And we’re just getting started.

Here’s the release we just sent out, and a picture to mark the occasion.

picture_1

DEMOCRATIC FUNDRAISING ON ACTBLUE TOPS $50 MILLION

CAMBRIDGE, MA, JUNE 10, 2008– Democratic fundraising topped $50
million on ActBlue yesterday evening, signaling a surge in fundraising
well beyond the presidential contest. The $50 million total represents
contributions from more than 395,000 donors to more than 3000
candidates and committees, with a median contribution of $50.

Propelled by high numbers from, among others, Rick Noriega’s Texas
Senate campaign and Leslie Byrne’s bid for a Virginia Congressional
seat, ActBlue’s totals also reflect records from some unlikely
directions. In California’s Third Senate District, all four Democratic
primary challengers used ActBlue, raising more than $500,000 ahead of
last week’s primary. The victor in that contest, Mark Leno, raised more
than $227,000 from 600 donors, an ActBlue record for a state race.

“Small dollar donations are the key to Democratic strength, because as
we’ve seen with the Obama campaign, sustainability comes from being
able to return to your base and ask for help when you need it,” says
ActBlue’s executive director, Jonathan Zucker. “We’re building that
capacity for Democrats at every level. You don’t have to be a national
campaign to harness the power of small donors.”

ActBlue’s nearest Republican counterpart, Slatecard.com, has raised
$350,000 since 2007. (For comparison, ActBlue raised more than $890,000
in its first six months of operation.)

The nation’s largest source of funds for Democrats, ActBlue produces a
set of tools that allow individuals and groups to raise money for the
candidates and causes of their choice, tools that now power the
fundraising operations of hundreds of campaigns, from the state house
to the White House. Top fundraisers on ActBlue include groups from
every part of the Democratic spectrum, from establishment Democrats and
elected officials to insurgent Democratic candidates to networks of
prominent bloggers.

Another great day.

Thanks from all of us. Keep up the good work!

ActBlue Obama Fundraisers in the LA Times

We’ve been extremely busy at ActBlue this week, as Democrats come together to support the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama.

After Senator Obama reached the delegate numbers needed to clinch the nomination on Tuesday night, we sent an email encouraging ActBlue Democrats to show their support by creating a personal fundraising page for Obama.

Here is an excerpt of the email:

Now it’s time for Democrats to come together and start working for victory in November. ActBlue wants to help you do your part.

Build a personal fundraising page and ask each of your friends and family members to contribute to the Obama campaign.
Build it right here. Ask right now.

Join the legions of Democrats who are ready to fight.
Become a fundraiser and create a fundraising page.

Less than 36 hours later, dozens of people have taken up the fight for the White House and started fundraising for Obama on ActBlue. This morning, the Los Angeles Times cited these new ActBlue pages as "a measure of [Obama’s] power on the Internet." As ActBlue is a barometer for the strength of Obama’s online support, we need you to get involved and prove that a united Democratic Party cannot and will not be defeated.

Keep the buzz going and build a page for our nominee, Barack Obama.

From all of us here at ActBlue, thanks.