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Today ActBlue mourns the passing of Sen. Robert Byrd, who died early this morning at the age of 92. As we observe the death of another titan of the United States Senate, I’d like to reflect on the moment when I became a fan of Senator Byrd. In March of 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Senator Byrd addressed his colleagues. The tone he took was self-possessed, firm, statesmanlike. A self-made man from hardscrabble roots, his words reflected the conviction that he had earned the right to speak his mind in troubled times:

The general unease surrounding this war is not just due to “orange
alert.” There is a pervasive sense of rush and risk and too many
questions unanswered. How long will we be in Iraq? What will be the
cost? What is the ultimate mission? How great is the danger at home? A
pall has fallen over the Senate Chamber. We avoid our solemn duty to
debate the one topic on the minds of all Americans, even while scores of
thousands of our sons and daughters faithfully do their duty in Iraq.

At the time, it was an act of rare courage. Today, we recognize the wisdom his words contained, as we ask ourselves similar questions about a different war and consider the impact of the current recession on American families and futures. It is to our detriment that Sen. Byrd is no longer with us to guide these discussions.

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According to the Center for Responsive PoliticsAT&T and AFSCME are the largest players in the political fundraising world, with ActBlue making its debut at #3. There's only one problem: their numbers are wrong, and significantly so. In 6 years, ActBlue has sent more to Democrats than either AT&T or AFSCME raised in 20. Take note of the $70,000,000 disparity between our internal numbers and CRP's–I'll explain what that's about shortly.

Organization Total Federal $ Tracked Since Soft Money
ActBlue [Internal] $105,441,400 2004 No
ActBlue [CRP] $39,617,767 2004 No
AT&T $44,939,004 1990 Yes
AFSCME $42,582,261 1990 Yes

The following table summarizes CRP's federal numbers for the top three in 2009-2010, with our internal federal numbers in the top row:

Name Total $ Dem. $ GOP $ Individual $ PAC $
ActB [Actual] $32,946,471 $32,946,471 0 $32,946,471 0
ActB [CRP] $11,864,002 $11,851,252 $6,500 $11,870,092 -$6,090
AT&T $2,610,504 $1,254,935 $1,331,469 $272,129 $2,338,375
AFSCME $1,823,550 $1,809,550 $6,500 $20,050 $1,803,500

A few things seem off about those results, right? In 2010, there's a $20,000,000+ (twenty million!) disparity between our numbers and CRP's numbers, and they have us sending $6,500 to GOP candidates. Also, we're #3 on the heavy hitters list, despite outpacing both AT&T and AFSCME thus far. The problems here are methodological:

First, CRP tabulates its numbers based on reports filed by campaigns. Since the average contribution size across ActBlue is $102.83, most of our volume falls below the $200 FEC reporting threshold. Accordingly, it doesn't get captured by CRP. That's another way of saying that of the $33M in federal money that's passed through ActBlue this cycle, only $12M of it came via contributions >$200.

Second, the $6,500 sent to GOP candidates is actually just a misreading of Parker Griffith's 2010 total, raised before he switched parties. CRP tracks affiliation by cycle, and when Griffith switched parties ahead of his rout in the GOP primary the money he raised through ActBlue was retroactively labeled GOP money in their database. (As a Republican, Griffith could not raise money on ActBlue.)

Methodological problems aside, the numbers highlight an important trend. Cycle to cycle, AFSCME and AT&T have not seen their numbers increase much in 20 years, while ActBlue–controlling for presidential/midterm differences–has seen our volume more than double each cycle. As a result, in 6 years we've sent more money to federal candidates and committees than 20 years of giving by AFSCME and AT&T combined. 

That's the scale at which we operate, and a stark reminder of the importance of our work.

*I want to thank CRP for the forthright acknowledgment of these issues that they include with our listing.

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.

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