Lessons of Arkansas

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. 

Money Is Different

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

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.

Election Reactions

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.

The Top 10 Committees of 2009 by Donors

In our series of posts looking back at 2009 (here, here, & here) there was one list we had not yet made public. So, thanks to popular demand, we’d like to post ActBlue’s Top 10 most active campaigns and committees of all of 2009 when ranked by the number of donors.


Committee Race/Type
Contributions Amount
Progressive Change Campaign Committee 39,067 $1,064,408.90
Rob Miller SC-02, 2010 25,669 $957,982.61
Democracy for America 17,255 $416,754.76
No on 1 / Protect Maine Equality Ballot Question 17,125 $1,398,965.97
Alan Grayson FL-08, 2010 13,508 $462,324.84
FDL Action PAC 7,402 $235,973.94
Blue America PAC 5,859 $114,534.53
Gavin Newsom CA-Gov, 2010 4,481 $1,035,928.73
Eric Massa NY-29, 2010 3,493 $208,342.72
Barney Frank MA-04, 2010 3,427 $41,716.45

What a list! Five out of the 10 top committees ranked by total contributions are campaigns. Those campaigns are spread across five entirely different states in all corners of the county. They include challengers and incumbents, statewide and congressional races, and varying degrees of electoral competitiveness. Among the five non-candidate committees, we find a ballot question in Maine’s statewide marriage equality campaign, two Netroots blog based PACs, and Democracy for America (DFA). Topping the list for 2009 is the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) which raised over $1 million for the year. The PCCC and DFA collaborated on multiple joint fundraising pages in 2009 helping increase their total number of contributions and lift both committees to the top of our donor charts.

Congratulations to these 10 campaigns and organizations as well as the thousands of others that raised money through ActBlue in 2009. We’re well on our way to a bigger, better, and bluer year of fundraising in 2010.

If Trouble Was Money

At times, everything comes together. I work for ActBlue and I read Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias regularly. Sometimes I see Prof. Lessig in the distance when I head out for lunch. Yesterday, Ezra and Matt both had posts up about Lessig's presentation on institutional corruption that I wanted to address.

Part I: Lessig's Argument

The video is rather long, so I'll summarize. Lessig defines institutional corruption as follows:

Institutional corruption isn't Blagojevich. It's not bribery or any violation of any existing rules … [it's] a certain kind of influence within an economy of influence. It's institutional corruption if it (1) weakens the effectiveness of an institution to serve its purpose or (2) Weakens the public trust of that institution, leading to the inability of the institution to serve its purpose.

In other words, it's not so much about corruption within an institution as the corruption of the institution itself, or the appearance thereof. That last bit is important in Lessig's formulation: if everyone believes the institution to be corrupted, then it might as well be. They won't trust the process, and they won't trust the results–an idea that's validated to a certain extent by the unfolding healthcare reform crisis.

If you're onboard with that, you're probably wondering what the "economy of influence" Lessig mentions is. Briefly, it works like this:

Special interests have a lot of money, and are in search of favorable policy outcomes. They hire lobbyists, who promote their employer's preferred policy. Legislators grant these lobbyists access because 1) running a campaign is expensive, and lobbyists represent a lot of campaign cash and 2) once a legislator's campaigning days are over, lobbying is a pretty good way to make a living. That results in legislation that meets the needs of the interests that dispatched the lobbyists. So they send more.

In other words, everybody is being rational, but that way of doing business undermines public trust, produces severely compromised policy, and ultimately results in broken political institutions.

Part II: What Is To Be Done?

Driving the whole process is the fact that legislators need money to run their campaigns. If you take that out of the picture, both lobbyist access and the lobbying industry dry up, which also handily removes the lure of a potential second career as a lobbyist from a legislator's calculation.

Lessig advocates public financing for elections as the best way to create this alternate food source for federal campaigns. The problem is that he's just spent 45 minutes explaining why that can't happen. Robust public financing legislation would represent a system-wide failure of the "economy of influence." Assuming the political climate even allows legislators to consider such a bill, chances are it would be imperfect and riddled with loopholes that interests insert in order to exploit them later. Additionally, as the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC demonstrates, even imperfect campaign finance law isn't safe. Clearly, that alternate food source has to come from outside the Washington D.C. economy of influence. Transparency is also crucial, as part of reversing institutional corruption is restoring public trust. People have to know where the money is coming from.

ActBlue does that, and more. We track donors and dollars in real time. We report everything to the FEC. We are, in a word, transparent. Moreover, we work with campaigns at every level of politics. Annise Parker, the newly-elected mayor of Houston, has an ActBlue listing. So do Democratic state legislators and members of Congress. They and their staffers are learning a new participatory model for campaign fundraising. We are building a farm system for the Democratic Party, and the results are real. Read the quarter-by-quarter breakdown of our 2009 numbers for the data on that.

Rep. Donna Edwards, MD-04, said it best:

ActBlue removes the K Street lobbyists from the equation … [candidates] can actually act on their own, and work on policy that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Donna Edwards defeated 8-term incumbent Al Wynn in the 2008 Democratic primary. She raised $500,000 on ActBlue from 9,000 donors.  ActBlue unravels the economy of influence, one donor at a time. And we do it through methods I think Prof. Lessig would approve of. While I may disagree with him on the technical aspects, I agree with him on this:

We face as a nation an extraordinary range of critical problems that require serious attention … the responsibility we need to focus is the responsibility of the good people, the decent people, the people who could've picked up a phone. The responsibility of us.

I took the title of this post from a great blues tune by Albert Collins. There's a lyric that comes to mind whenever I get frustrated with American politics–and yes, political professionals do get frustrated with our political system, even as we work within it–that keeps me going. I think I'll end with it.

She said, 'I want you to be a winner / I love you, son, I don't want you to quit.'

ActBlue 2009: Executive Summary

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.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Responding with strength

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.

ActBlue counters corporate money

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.

Acting Blue in Texas: Annise Parker Wins in Houston

Democrats in Texas may not have won a statewide race since 1994, but last Saturday, Democrat Annise Parker won a run-off election with 52.8% of the vote to become Mayor of Houston, America's 4th largest city. 

While both run-off candidates happened to be Democrats, Annise Parker was the only one who was part of ActBlue's municipal candidate pilot project, which includes Houston, raising $18,350 through ActBlue for her campaign. A large portion of those funds came from the grassroots efforts of local, state, and national Stonewall Democrats who were interested in supporting an openly lesbian candidate and were able to track donations through their branded ActBlue partnership.

We congratulate Parker on her election as she becomes the highest ranking openly gay person elected as Mayor of a major American city. Her victory is bigger than that, though, as she is also the first candidate in decades to win without the backing of traditional establishment players and the city's business interests.

Annise Danette Parker was elected mayor of Houston on Saturday, winning her seventh consecutive city election and becoming both the first contender in a generation to defeat the hand-picked candidate of Houston's business establishment and the first openly gay person to lead a major U.S. city.

Parker, Houston's current city controller who first emerged in the public arena as a gay rights activist in the 1980s, defeated former City Attorney Gene Locke on an austere platform, convincing voters that her financial bona fides and restrained promises would be best suited in trying financial times. Parker, 53, will replace the term-limited Mayor Bill White on Jan. 1.

Her victory capped an unorthodox election season that lacked a strong conservative mayoral contender and saw her coalition of inside-the-Loop Democrats and moderate conservatives, backed by an army of ardent volunteers, win the day over Locke, a former civil rights activist who attempted to unite African-American voters and Republicans.

The current Houston City Controller and former Councilmember, Annise Parker has been elected 6 times in Houston and is rooted in civic activism. She commanded a dedicaded volunteer army which helped her secure victory in the run-off in face of last minute attacks on her sexuality, which has hardly been an issue in the prior year long campaign. 

And as noted in an article by Politico, her election in Houston is a reflection of a larger trend in politics, where high growth, diverse cities are leading Democrats back to power even in traditional Republican counties and states. 

But the election of Annise Parker in Houston makes clear that the Charlottes and Houstons are now at the forefront of American political change, while the shrinking and declining big cities of the Northeast and Rust Belt are bringing up the rear.

"Houston is your post-racial, post-ethnic future of America," said demographer Joel Kotkin. "It's a leading-edge place."

ActBlue is there to help those candidates get out on that leading edge and connect with a diverse and growing community of small donors. It's a powerful force which is evident even in Texas where Annise Parker recognizes the impact this election has beyond her city. 

“Tonight the voters of Houston have opened the doors to history,” she said. “I acknowledge that. I embrace that. I know what this win means to many of us who thought we could never achieve high office. I know what it means. I understand, because I feel it, too. But now, from this moment, let us join as one community. We are united in one goal in making this city the city that it could be, should be, can be and will be.”

“Hear me: The city is on your side,” she said. “I learned about the problems and the needs and hopes of our city at the neighborhood level. I understand what needs to be done to move us forward. … I promise to give to citizens an administration of honesty, integrity and transparency,” she said. “The only special interest will be the public. We are in this together. We rise or fall together.”