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Ten years ago my AP Government teacher told me–with an indulgent smile for my youthful skepticism–that incumbent status was its own reward. Fundraising networks, establishment support, name recognition, high-powered surrogates; how, he asked, could an insurgent candidate hope to overcome these advantages? At first blush, the returns in Arkansas validate his certainty–Sen. Blanche Lincoln survived a primary challenge from Bill Halter and the coalition of progressive groups that backed him. 

The reality is a little more complex, however. What my teacher was trying to get a classroom full of adolescents to see was that structural forces often trump individual attributes. (This is a hard lesson to teach teenagers, who are all unique and obdurate souls.) What's interesting about the Halter/Lincoln race is that Halter, by all accounts no favored son of the Arkansas political establishment, was able to build a campaign in 8 weeks–a campaign that forced a sitting senator into a runoff election the she won by only a few thousand votes.*

There's a structural change that explains the viability Halter's challenge: the rise of fast, effective online fundraising. In the 48 hours after he announced, Halter hit $1,000,000, raised from tens of thousands of individual donors. On ActBlue alone, he raised over 1.2M via 40,000 individual contributions over the course of his campaign. In fact, many of the Democrats who won elected office over the last two cycles used their online fundraising success to gain traction in more traditional political fora. 

That's what we built ActBlue to do. By providing a non-ideological space where Democrats can raise money online, we're enabling new Democratic voices to emerge and establish themselves in ways that simply weren't possible before. Today I'd like to set to one side the many senators and representatives who cut their teeth in national politics using ActBlue (Sestak, Hagan, Tester, McCaskill, et al), and focus on the groups involved in the AR-Sen race.

Much of Halter's online haul came from members of MoveOn, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), Democracy for America (DFA) and the DailyKos community. That's a remarkably young list. MoveOn is far and away the eminence grise, a digital dinosaur whose pedigree stretches all the way back to the late 90s. DfA is younger, growing out of Howard Dean's '04 run, and the PCCC was founded in '09 by MoveOn and AFL-CIO alums (the latter being another major player in Halter's race). In 8 weeks they were able to raise millions for a will-he-won't-he candidate whose name had been floated for just about every office in Arkansas. Their fundraising propelled him into the national spotlight, and gave him the resources he needed to run a remarkably successful campaign against a sitting senator. 

As the editors of POLITICO have noted, Arkansas and Pennsylvania aren't isolated events. This change isn't restricted to one state, or one race. Our platform supports candidates in every state and at every level of politics, providing Democrats with an ample proving ground for promising candidates. ActBlue monetized Democratic passion; our platform made Democratic fundraising more democratic. Party leaders understand the power that transformation represents, and now the repercussions are making themselves felt in our country's highest offices.

*Had she lost, she would've been the third Senator to lose her seat in a primary this cycle, a figure that hasn't been matched in the last 30 years. That's how rare these upsets are. 

Matt Yglesias has a post up about fundraising and filibuster reform, which

Highlight[s] that political fundraising is a good place to be
uncompromising. There’s no sense in “staying home” on Election Day or
casting protest votes for can’t-win candidates. You look at the two
candidates with the best chance for winning and you
vote—enthusiastically—for the better of the two candidates. But money is
different.

In the aftermath of Tuesday's primary battles, that seems rather apparent. But I'd like to dig a little deeper, because I think Matt hits on something in his post that's central to political fundraising, and particularly pertinent right now:

The world of high-dollar fundraising is about donors making wagers. If you're the sort of person who can afford to drop $4,800 on a number of federal campaigns, you're more interested in the access you'll get to the candidate if they win. It's transactional–the donor is betting that money now will result in access later. As an aside, let me note that in order for that gamble to make sense, the candidate has to be both "viable" and receptive to your position.

Grassroots fundraising is a bit different. I'm fond of saying that ActBlue was the platform that figured out how to monetize Democratic passion, and that captures the essential point. Grassroots donors give because they're passionate. What exactly they're passionate about is hard to say–hundreds of thousands of donors have given through ActBlue, with motivations as various as they are. 

But the general point is this: high-dollar donors are making a calculation, while grassroots donors are expressing themselves.

That distinction has important implications for campaigns. Passion generates important external benefits, or spillover effects. A grassroots donor has invested in the campaign in a very real way, and that
predisposes them to participate in the future. A donor who gives to a campaign is more likely to volunteer or vote for the candidate in question, and more likely to give again. In short, they become engaged in a way they weren't before.

Passion produces engagement, and engagement produces viability. The fact that the Halter and Sestak campaigns worked to connect with grassroots donors and amassed significant funds as a result is not a triviality. Running against an establishment candidate usually results in a financial chokehold, but the money that Sestak received from grassroots donors made it possible for him to stay in race and fund the devastating ads that led to Specter's defeat. A similar set of circumstances applies in Halter's race.

Obviously the interconnections here are vast and complex, and we can argue all day about the value of a dollar or a donor in a given race versus an endorsement or press hit. But I think it's pretty inarguable that the rise of online grassroots fundraising has broadened political participation and, as a result, the spectrum of viable candidates. More voter participation and voter choice are unquestionably good things.

Finally, In a more self-interested vein, I'd like to echo Matt's last point:

You’re only going to give so much money away in a year, and you might as
well hold out for politicians or political organizations … who are really doing a good job.

Agreed. I'd suggest ActBlue, for one.

Today, the Vandehei/Harris article on POLITICO argues, re: last night's election results

What’s now clear, in a way that wasn’t before, is that these results
reflect a genuine national phenomenon, not simply isolated spasms in
response to single issues or local circumstances.

This is a stark and potentially durable change in politics. The old
structures that protected incumbent power are weakening. New structures,
from partisan news outlets to online social networks, are giving
anti-establishment politicians access to two essential elements of
effective campaigns: publicity and financial support.

Yup. I don't want to go the full "lonely voice in the wilderness" route on POLITICO's co-founders, but I've been saying that for a while.

While you should read the quarter-by-quarter analysis of ActBlue’s growth in 2009, the executive summary is as follows:

  • Volume ($) increased 84% over 2007
  • Volue (# of donations) increased 92% over 2007
  • The number of Democratic entities receiving money through ActBlue doubled relative to 2007
  • Successful fundraising pages increased 167% over 2007

It’s worth taking a moment to think about the two moments we’re comparing here. In 2007, the Democrats were fresh off an election that returned both houses of Congress to their control. The popularity of the GOP was tanking, and prospects for retaking the White House looked good.

In 2009 the Democrats had control of Congress and the White House, and were heading towards a midterm election. The anticipation that characterized 2007 had been replaced with the reality of governing. The country continued to struggle under the weight of a prolonged recession. Only a few states had elections.

Nevertheless, 241,000 ActBlue users, overwhelmingly small-dollar donors, combined to send more than $30M to Democratic candidates and committees.

ActBlue exists at the nexus of a number of accelerating trends, all of which share some responsibility for driving our growth in these unlikely circumstances. The main trend is the continued growth of the internet in American life, with an estimated 44% of American households having access. Subsidiary trends include online banking, which grew by 47%, and Twitter and Facebook, which saw an increase in unique visitors of 1382% and 228% respectively. Facebook’s user growth occurred primarily in the 35-54 year old demographic. Whether you’ve embraced the internet for transactional or social reasons, the trend line is clear: you are not alone.

In the past year, ActBlue pioneered integrations with Facebook and Twitter, allowing Democratic donors to give via tweet and share the fact that they’d contributed on both sites. In short, we’re meeting Democratic donors where they are, with overwhelmingly positive results.

The totals for 2009 are below–click to enlarge.

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The real value of the Citizens United decision might be its crystal-clear affirmation of reality.  Like I said this morning, I'm not a fan of the decision.  But "corporate" money has always been in politics.  The Court itself noted that "political speech is so ingrained in this country’s culture that speakers find ways around campaign finance laws."

The problem is that it's not.  As a country, we don't spend nearly enough energy on politics.  Only a small minority of Americans contribute to candidates.  Campaign finance regulations may have been a comforting check on corporate interests, but they were never the most effective.  With corporations about to enjoy an unencumbered ability to spend money on political advocacy, we must respond with strength.  It's time for a better answer: one that builds a deeper political culture up from its base, friend to friend and community to community.

While I'm disappointed by the decision of the court in the matter of Citizens United v. FEC, we know that corporate money has always maneuvered around the legislative barriers erected by Congress. Moreover, the academic doomsaying around this issue overlooks an essential truth about American politics: millions of engaged Americans are always worth more than millions of corporate dollars.

Denying the agency and power of Americans feeds a culture of cynicism and disengagement that is antithetical to a healthy political process. If defeatist arguments carry the day, we will hand corporate interests a more significant victory than their money could ever buy.

ActBlue's success tells a different story. When we founded ActBlue in 2004, I knew that corporate donations would always be a significant factor in our political process. ActBlue is a counterweight, a means of balancing special interest money through Democratic mobilization. Our model has been proven. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have used ActBlue to raise $118,000,000 for Democrats. That's six times more money than the entire oil and gas industry gave to Democrats over the same period.

ActBlue allows Democrats to shape their political future in profound and enduring ways. Regardless of the court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, that's change we can believe in.

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Amassing the financial resources you need to run for office
can be difficult. You need to hit your list, get that money, flip that money
into advertisements, paychecks, and all the other things that make a campaign
tick. The time window for all of that is extremely short. At the same time,
national and state campaign finance laws also require that you capture a
tremendous amount of information about your donors.

You’d think the breakneck pace of campaign season and data
analysis would be in opposition, but they’re not. In fact, knowing your list is
key to producing the financial returns you’ll need to run a successful
campaign. If you don’t take the time to find out who is supporting you, you’ll
end up leaving a lot of money on the table come Election Day.

Donors are investing in your campaign, and doing your due diligence is a great way to signal that you don’t see them as an
undifferentiated mass of walking wallets. Jesse Greenberg, a Chicago-area political consultant, summed it up well in a post on social media in politics:

Earlier this summer, I attended a campaign
event for Debbie Halvorsen, a congressional candidate in Illinois’ 11th
district. I registered and paid my contribution through ActBlue. This
online transaction called for my email. It surprises me
that today I received, not one, but two letters from the Halvorson campaign
soliciting me for funds. As a “supporter” I’d like to be listened to and
clearly their direct mail piece doesn’t indicate they are listening.  If I
used ActBlue to register for an event and make a donation, doesn’t that mean
I’m more likely to respond to online communications rather than direct
mail?

I’d like to amplify that a bit. I’m a 20-something who works
in Democratic politics. It’s what I do every day. But if you, theoretical
Democratic candidate, USPS me an envelope asking me to send you a check, I
won’t even know what to do with it. I pay my bills, my rent, and just about everything
else online. Established media empires are crumbling because folks my age don’t
buy newspapers anymore. Asking me to write you a check and take it
to the post office is very, very unlikely to produce a response. Even if I do
mail you a check, the costs you incur for direct mail solicitations—staff time,
printing, postage and processing—are astronomically high compared to sending me
an email.

ActBlue allows you to sidestep those costs and makes it easy for you to see who your donors are. When donors sign up for a free ActBlue Express account, they have the option to click a box that appends “donor prefers email” to their contributions. As a candidate, all you have to do is look for that little tell in your contribution reports and make sure you communicate with them via email.

Encouraging your donors to sign up for free ActBlue Express
accounts
also provides a number of other advantages to your campaign. While
donating through ActBlue is always faster than writing and mailing a check,
ActBlue Express stores all their donor information. That means that when they
get your email, all they have to do is enter their password and their donation
is on its way to you at digital speed. That means more conversions per email,
and more money in your war chest.

Making use of the tools at your disposal isn’t about being hip, or new media savvy. It’s about winning. As Obama for America demonstrated, the payoffs for campaigns that are ahead of the curve in this area are
enormous.

I don’t understand Jonathan Allen’s CQ article on ActBlue fundraising.

His initial point: candidates who raise a lot of money on ActBlue don’t necessary win their elections. Well, no kidding. Adequate funding is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for victory. Rob Miller isn’t guaranteed anything, but what he does have now is a solid financial base 14 months out from the election that will allow his campaign to fund critical field and outreach efforts. The next time Joe Wilson screams at someone, chances are good it’ll be from his own district trying to keep his job.

But the rest of the article starts to read like a snub on these candidates and their grassroots donors. He offers an incomplete list of eight losing efforts and two victors. In fact, 12 of our 20 top candidates won their races in 2008 (below).

The final paragraph is the most revealing:

Still, it’s worth wondering whether some of the money could be better invested in candidates who are more likely to win.

Unfortunately, I don’t have that crystal ball. In any case, we’ve long been proud of our diverse fundraising community, many who search out the highest-leverage opportunities for online giving and small dollar contributions, both to win races and to influence the national discussion. If all our candidates won every cycle, we’d be spending money on the wrong races. I’d hate to see that spirit change.

§

For the record, here is the complete top-20 list of funds raised by candidates on ActBlue during the 2007-2008 election cycle.

Candidate Result Amount
John Edwards (Pres) Lost $4,136,518.67
Kay Hagan (NC-Sen) WON $2,433,543.55
Rick Noriega (TX-Sen) Lost $1,798,743.98
Jim Martin (GA-Sen) Lost $1,708,812.78
Mark Warner (VA-Sen) WON $1,368,333.13
Dan Seals (IL-10) Lost $1,103,181.09
Barack Obama (Pres) WON $1,068,305.87
Joseph Sestak Jr (PA-7) WON $1,027,375.74
Darcy Burner (WA-8) Lost $764,796.65
Chellie Pingree (ME-1) WON $734,430.77
Scott Kleeb (NE-Sen) Lost $733,965.75
Eric Massa (NY-29) WON $726,732.32
Gary Peters (MI-9) WON $707,713.65
Martin Heinrich (NM-1) WON $663,681.31
Bob Lord (AZ-3) Lost $600,097.26
Steve Novick (OR-Sen) Lost $542,144.71
Jeff Merkley (OR-Sen) WON $536,619.52
Jared Polis (CO-2) WON $514,876.42
Al Franken (MN-Sen) WON $509,006.34
Mark Schauer (MI-7) WON $491,680.04

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