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The torrent of grassroots money flowing into Wisconsin peaked in March, but it continues flowing in April, funding a variety of organizations that are laying the groundwork for the summer’s recall elections.

Number of contributions 51,733
Total raised $2,581,828.41
Average Contribution size $49.91
Committees receiving money 678
Fundraising pages receiving money 763
Pages created 350

 

Here’s how those numbers stack up relative to 2009, and to the same point in the last presidential election cycle.

Apr 2007 Apr 2009 Apr 2011 Change
Contributions 6,978 7,260 51,733 613%
Volume ($) $641,530.81 $1,001,479.07 $2,581,828.41 158%
Mean Donation $91.94 $137.94 $49.91 -64%
Committees 200 434 678 56%

 

As you can see, ActBlue surpassed last cycle’s numbers by leaps and bounds, while the pool of donors grew considerably. That growth speaks to our success at reducing the barriers to entry in political fundraising, and to the commitment of thousands of grassroots donors across the United States.

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for April 2011.

Name Race Donors Dollars
PCCC Wisconsin Recall Fund Organization 21,190 $176,242
PCCC Organization 20,223 $166,820
DfA, Wisconsin Recall Organization 18,729 $158,910
Democracy for America Organization 14,409 $103,413
WI State Senate Democratic Committee Organization 3,213 $47,883

 

Over at Greg Sargent's blog, Adam Serwer (who also blogs at the American Prospect) has a good post up on the GOP reaction to President Obama's executive order requiring contractors who do business with the federal government to disclose their political donations. 

I predicted the GOP would react this way in an earlier post, but I didn't expect the additional layer of irony that is John Yoo arguing for "a right to political privacy" in the Wall Street Journal. John Yoo, you'll recall, is the guy who said the President could order a village massacred. He's the guy who wrote the torture memos and argued that the fourth amendment doesn't apply to the War on Terror. That exemption was the basis for the warrantless wiretapping program exposed by the New York Times in 2005. And the final sign that Yoo is way out on a limb here is simply that Justice Antonin Scalia disagrees with him:

[R]unning a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights…

So, to recap, according to John Yoo, the American people don't have any right to privacy. The government can seize your phone records, lock you away forever, have you tortured, and whatever else seems like it might stop the terrorists. But should Uncle Sam ask contractors that stand to benefit financially from their campaign donations to disclose who they're giving to–well, that would be government overreach.

Since this issue is complicated, let me boil it down to a few key facts:

  1. The Supreme Court has explicity rejected the argument that disclosure "chills speech." When you speak using your voice, people know that it's you speaking. The same should be true when you speak using your money. 
  2. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court specifically called for disclosure: "[w]ith the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters… citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests."
  3. The Republican Party has blocked off all other avenues for protecting disclosure. The DISCLOSE Act "failed" in the Senate, as a 59-39 majority in favor of it was insuffient to overcome a Republican filibuster. And our General Counsel has written extensively about the way in which the 3-3 Republican-Democrat split in the FEC has rendered the body impotent. The executive order was hardly the preferred option.

Those three facts and the choice of John Yoo as messenger should tell you everything you need to know about the sincerity, coherence and good intentions that underlie the GOP's position on disclosure. 

Read the editorial, it's a masterwork of mendacity, a cavalcade of calumnies, a fraudulent fantasy penned by a man who shouldn't have an iota of credibility on matters of speech, privacy or democracy. On a personal note, I find the sickest thing about Yoo's editorial to be its view that the assault, imprisonment and murder of Civil Rights supporters and disclosure laws are equally injurious to our democracy. Taking a beating in the press is in no way the same as actually taking a beating

Recently a couple of stories broke about attempts to bring disclosure back into the political fundraising process. The first was about a draft executive order that will make it harder for federal contractors to use campaign finance vehicles like American Crossroads GPS to support candidates without disclosing that fact. The second article covers DCCC chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen's (D-MD) suit against the FEC as part of an attempt to get that very same group (Crossroads GPS) to disclose its donors. 

Neither article mentions the larger context:

In 2010, a Republican filibuster doomed the DISCLOSE act in the Senate. The DISCLOSE act was a response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC, and would've enacted the disclosure requirements explicitly called for by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion. Republicans killed the bill because they knew disclosure would limit the amount of money they could raise through vehicles like Crossroads GPS. There are plenty of corporations out there that support Republicans, but not all of them are looking to be Target

With the Senate deadlocked, the FEC seemed like another route for protecting disclosure. Unfortunately, it's also paralyzed. By law, the FEC is composed of 3 Democratic and 3 Republican comissioners. As in the Senate, the Republican members of the FEC are hostile to anything that might increase disclosure and bring transparency into the system. So the FEC remains deadlocked (for more on exactly how/why this is happening, see the link above).

That context is important because, when the legislative and regulatory routes are closed down by Republican obstruction, only the courts and executive branch remain. Any right-wing vitriol directed against these measures that doesn't acknowledge the GOP's role in closing off all other routes is an attempt to deceive the audience.  

The issue of disclosure is of critical importance to our democracy. Think of it this way: speech, as most of us understand it, is associated with identifiable voices. Accordingly, if money is speech, we need to know who is speaking. When that link breaks down, it's hard for voters–and the reporters they depend on–to tell what interests are moving through our political process. The advertisements run by Mom 'n Pop Apple Pie Shop could be a underwritten by money from Big Pie, and there'd be no way for anyone to know. Ultimately, there's no way to make an informed decision about who to vote for if you don't and can't know who's backing them.

One option is to take money out of politics, but I'm not sure there's an effective way to use politics to keep money out of politics. If you accept the proposition that interest groups can affect political outcomes, then it seems only natural that they'd work to ensure their main avenue for exerting that influence isn't cut off by an act of Congress. Even if you're willing to assume a perfect piece of campaign finance legislation, you still run into the problem that the law is constantly evolving. A decision down the road that couldn't possibly have been forseen can punch a hole through even the most well-crafted campaign finance law. In fact, we just saw that very thing happen with the Citizens United decision that undermined years of precedent and opened huge gaps in McCain-Feingold. 

That reality is why ActBlue is so important. We're taking the most settled aspect of campaign finance law (the right of individuals to give to candidates) and using it as a way to demonstrate that small donors can have a powerful voice in our politics. By disclosing those donations, we're working to remove the stigma of political giving and make it an easy and regular part of American life. In the end, we're working to restore the very confidence in our political system that Republicans are actively undermining in search of an ever larger, ever less accountable grip on our political system.

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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We walk a fine editorial line here on the blog. As a good faith partner to Democrats of various ideological orientations, ActBlue doesn’t endorse candidates or committees. At the same time, we always enjoy it when a group or candidate uses our tools well. In that vein, I want to highlight the tremendous accomplishments of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) over the past two years.

Founded in 2009, the PCCC is a recent entrant to the world of progressive political organizations–MoveOn.org dates back to 1998, while Democracy for America grew out of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. Newcomer status aside, the PCCC has accomplished some pretty remarkable feats on ActBlue. Their total of 100,000 supporters easily doubles the mark set by some of our most successful campaigns. Equally impressive is their average donation figure, which comes in just under $20. Those figures came about as part of a broad involvement with progressive issues that encompassed everything from Bill Halter’s primary challenge in Arkansas to activism around the public option in the healthcare bill.

ActBlue’s raison d’etre revolves around the idea of d/Democratizing power. We created these tools to put consequential political action at the fingertips–literally–of anyone with access to the internet. And while we’ve produced $174 million for Democrats in six years, our goals are broader than that. In 2004, our hunch was that increasing access to and participation in the political fundraising process would have a number of salutary effects on our political system. Broader access makes it easier for candidates and organizations to build their own fundraising networks, allowing new voices to emerge. Increased participation means that political giving is seen as a form of democratic participation rather than a corrupting influence. Taken together, those ripple effects restore our faith in the underlying promise of democratic politics: everybody gets a say.

That’s why the PCCC is such a valuable test case for us. Their rapid emergence combines real political results and a dedication to a model of fundraising that both promotes broad engagement with Democratic politics and puts that engagement within reach of almost everyone. Aggregating those totals on ActBlue makes it easy for their donors to see that they’re a part of something much larger and more powerful than their $20 donation.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Here’s Adam Green, one of the founders of the PCCC, on the role ActBlue played in getting the PCCC off the ground:

At a time when we had pretty much no resources, ActBlue lowered the barrier for entry for us into the online fundraising marketplace allowing us to … not have to deal with the legal obstacles and technical obstacles and quickly accumulate a grassroots fundraising base … it’s valuable piece of progressive infrastructure. It allows groups like ours to get off the ground. We’re still using it today and I can’t say thanks enough to those who had the vision to come up with this concept.

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.

Welcome to ActBlue’s end-of-cycle report, covering the period from 1/1/2009 through 12/31/2010.

Number of contributions 782,792
Total raised $87,726,365.12
Average Contribution size $112.07
Committees receiving money 3,625
Fundraising pages receiving money 7,867
Pages created 14,559

 

While the past two years may feel like an eternity, there was a time not that long ago when the economy was healthy, Democrats had just retaken Congress, and a guy with a funny name was thinking about running for President. Today, we compare the two through the lens of ActBlue activity.

2006-08 2009-10 Change
Contributions 465,436 782,792 68%
Volume ($) $66,250,983.88 $87,726,365.12 32%
Mean Donation $142.34 $112.07 -21%
Committees 2,742 3,625 24%
Pages Created 10,704 14,559 36%
Pages w/ Money 5,091 7,867 54%

 

Note, in particular, that the growth in volume was exceeded by the growth in contributions. That figure speaks to our success in pursuit of our broader goal: increasing political participation.

The top 10 committees outline the shape of Democratic politics in ’09-’10: Rob Miller’s red-letter day; Halter and Sestak primary contests; the reaction to the unexpected results of GOP primaries in Alaska and Kentucky; Alan Grayson’s emergence as a national figure; what looked like a close Senate race in CA; and the tireless work of the PCCC and Democracy for America, which affected a number of the races below.

Name Race Donors Dollars
PCCC Organization 101,827 $2,017,631
Alan Grayson FL-08 56,309 $1,480,746
Democracy for America Organization 53,429 $956,944
Joe Sestak PA-Sen 44,773 $3,843,506
Bill Halter AR-Sen 39,205 $1,209,137
Jack Conway KY-Sen 35,159 $1,197,599
Rob Miller SC-02 27,110 $1,085,335
Anne McLane Kuster NH-02 24,273 $312,335
Barbara Boxer CA-Sen 20,427 $1,189,811
Scott McAdams AK-Sen 17,786 $738,071
Number of contributions 27,810
Total raised $1,185,812.85
Average Contribution size $42.64
Committees receiving money 443
Fundraising pages receiving money 281
Pages created 180

 

December 2010 saw a huge upswing in donors over 2008, thanks mostly to the efforts of the PCCC and other continuing committees, and bolstered by Bernie Sanders’ filibuster-that-wasn’t-technically-a-filibuster, otherwise known as #filibernie:

Sept 2008 Sept 2010 Change
Contributions 6,166 27,810 351%
Volume ($) $1,348,627.46 $1,185,812.85 -12%
Mean Donation $218.72 $42.64 -80%
Committees 350 443 26%
Pages Created 180 169 -6%
Pages w/ Money 281 426 51%

 

And here are the top committees, by number of donors, for December 2010. Since December is generally a slow month, we’re going to cut to the top four:

Name Race Donors Dollars
PCCC Organization 17,104 $293,394
Bernie Sanders VT-Sen 4,482 $67,821
Democracy for America Organization 3,009 $27,398
Anthony Weiner NY-09 662 $13,019

 

As the noise from the election dies down, December’s numbers bring the new method of low-dollar fundraising employed by the PCCC into stark relief. Under a distributed fundraising model, the cost to any given donor in terms of money/time per donation is smaller, and the ease of giving leads to enough conversions to make up the difference. The numbers make the case on their own: in December, no other committee came close to the PCCC’s mark in either dollars or donors. While #filibernie chewed up the airwaves/Twitter and overall ActBlue volume held steady, the PCCC drove a huge increase in donors and the attendant drop in average contribution size.

The PCCC’s success has larger implications for our politics: if political giving remains a luxury good–the sole preserve of people who can afford to shift $1M donations through American Crossroads–it can have corrosive effects on our democracy. At $10-$20 a pop, however, political contributions renew the underlying premise of American politics: everybody gets to play.

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