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Welcome to 2013! Barack Obama is still President of the United States. The U.S. Senate is still in Democratic hands. You could be forgiven for thinking not much has changed. You’d be wrong, as the numbers below show. Millions of Americans used ActBlue to show that their voice matters. While Mitt Romney was busy running down half of the country, many of them were busy ending his run. There are plenty of reasons why the election turned out the way it did, but you should never doubt your place among them.

Number of contributions 2,896,327
Total raised $136,497,244.45
Average Contribution size $47.13
Committees receiving money 3,895

 

Here’s what 2012 looks like compared to 2011 and 2008 (last presidential election year). Percentage change is year over year:

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 4.54.13 PM

Name Race Donors Dollars
DCCC Party Committee 1,127,706 $36,344,427
DSCC Party Committee 440,747 $18,644,200
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 98,331 $2,961,178
PCCC Organization 92,920 $1,160,340
CREDO SuperPAC SuperPAC 81,780 $2,295,125

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for 2012.

The run up to the Wisconsin recall election pushed our May numbers skyward to over a quarter billion dollars (!!) by the end of the month. Sure, we would’ve preferred a rather different outcome, but there’s a lesson in Wisconsin that’s more than gloom and doom: small donors have the power to create a national political event.

From the protests through both rounds of elections, this has been a story driven by small donors, including those who sent millions to Wisconsin Democrats using ActBlue. The top five entities for May all come in with average donations under $40. That kind of engagement forced the GOP to commit astronomical sums of money to a race that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

In short: grassroots donations sustained a state-level political struggle that lasted more than a year, and elevated it to national prominence. That’s a win, even if the returns didn’t go our way.

Number of contributions 208,071
Total raised $9,049,579.70
Average Contribution size $43.49
Committees receiving money 1,794

 

Here’s what May 2012 looks like compared to May 2011 and 2008 (last presidential election year). Percentage change is year over year:

May 2008 May 2011 May 2012 Change
Contributions 18,290 45,034 208,071 362%
Volume ($) $3,095,177.15 $2,627,655.58 $9,049,579.70 245%
Mean Donation $169.23 $58.35 $43.49 -25%
Committees 878 721 1,794 149%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for May 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
Tom Barrett WI-Gov 43,137 $1,509,842
DCCC Party Committee 41,138 $963,184
Democratic Party of WI Party Committee 24,158 $657,544
DFA Recall Campaign Organization 12,887 $309,818
PCCC Organization 12,395 $121,737

If you’ve read the last few monthly numbers posts you’re aware that it’s been a good year for Democrats on ActBlue. But looking at our Q1 numbers, you can see that a huge amount of money is flowing to candidates and committees that don’t make our top 5 for the quarter. While everyone else is consumed with the ups-and-downs of the presidential race, we’re quietly helping Democrats up and down the ballot get what they need to win.

Let’s take another angle on that: if every seat in Congress were constested, you’d have around 500 committees getting money. ActBlue has 2,050 recipients. That’s the best expression of the kind of work we do, and how it ripples out across the country. Now, the numbers:

Number of contributions 333,928
Total raised $18,070,391.02
Average Contribution size $54.11
Committees receiving money 2,050

 

So, these numbers are the gold standard for year-over-year growth. While 2012 is a presidential election year and that pushes the numbers upward, you can glance at our 2008 numbers to see how much we’ve grown over the interim.

Q1 2008 Q1 2011 Q1 2012 Change
Contributions 52,149 180,537 333,928 85%
Volume ($) $6,945,713.73 $8,712,756.77 $18,070,391.02 107%
Mean Donation $133.19 $48.26 $54.11 12%
Committees 992 881 2,050 133%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for Q1 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
DCCC Party Committee 103,592 $3,036,757
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 26,827 $1,310,832
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Party Committee 20,974 $423,339
Democracy for America Organization 20,602 $468,190
PCCC Organization 16,566 $166,313

Forgive the title, but March was a pretty crazy month. When you look at the year by year comparisons below, consider that March 2011 was the height of the Wisconsin protests, which drove hundreds of thousands of dollars through ActBlue. Now, in March 2012, we’re a few months away from the final act: the recall election for Gov. Scott Walker (R). The real lesson of ActBlue in 2012 is this: Democrats up and down the ballot are benefitting from the work we’ve done since 2010. We’re thrilled to see it pay off.

Number of contributions 167,080
Total raised $8,987,964.89
Average Contribution size $53.79
Committees receiving money 1,629

 

Here’s what March 2012 looks like compared to 2011 (recall protests) and 2008 (last presidential election year):

Mar 2008 Mar 2011 Mar 2012 Change
Contributions 25,344 143,012 167,080 17%
Volume ($) $3,707,738.92 $5,847,994.09 $8,987,964.89 54%
Mean Donation $146.30 $40.89 $53.79 31%
Committees 787 673 1,629 142%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for March 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
DCCC Party Committee 67,792 $1,942,038
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 10,526 $311,923
Democracy for America Organization 7,791 $127,177
PCCC Organization 7,454 $63,102
Alan Grayson FL-09 6,543 $146,564

A recent Seattle Times story on Maria Cantwell noted that, 

By far the biggest single source of Cantwell's fundraising last year was ActBlue, a political-action committee that acts as an online conduit for individuals who want to give to Democratic candidates. ActBlue "bundled" $365,000 for Cantwell.

Oh, hey scare quotes. If you check out Cantwell's ActBlue hub, you'll see she's received 7,333 donations through ActBlue totaling $750,000. That works out to about $100 a pop. Those donations were made by folks (real people!) who decided they wanted to support Cantwell's campaign and the money was disclosed to the FEC. So, we've got lots of people choosing to participate in a campaign, and doing so transparently. Terrifying. 

Let's return to those scare quotes. The author of the piece uses them to imply something inappropriate about small-dollar fundraising, as if totaling up grassroots donations were somehow the equivalent of, say, the K Street Project. It's ridiculous. Enabling small dollar donors to participate transparently and consequentially in the fundraising process only enhances democratic accountability. It's the opposite of the shadowy system of billionaire-financed campaigning that's kept the Republican nomination process going for so long. Bundling our "bundling" in with that sort of fundraising reflects a profound ignorance of what ActBlue actually does, and damages the credibility of the piece as a whole. 

It also reflects a real blindness about the role of money in politics. Money that comes from individuals and is disclosed in a way voters and reporters can access is hardly a corrupting influence. It's just another way for (actual) people to express themselves within the political process; the fact that ~$100 individual donations through ActBlue account for the lion's share of Maria Cantwell's fundraising is something to be celebrated, not scorned.

Here’s a rule about political fundraising: January is dead. People are feeling the pinch of their Christmas shopping, it’s cold, and the political cycle doesn’t really heat up for the non-primary-having party until later in the year. All in all, not a great time.

Not this January. This January was bananas. ActBlue sent over $4 million to Democratic candidates and committees this month, a nearly four-fold increase over January 2008. If you recall, in 2008 there was this little, kind of boring contest called the Democratic Presidential Nomination Fight–Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and so on. Still, 2012 is clocking in well ahead of those numbers, as you’ll see below:

Number of contributions 87,408
Total raised $4,021,352.93
Average Contribution size $46.01
Committees receiving money 1,207

 

You can’t really get a sense of how big January was until you see how it stacks up relative to 2011 and 2008:

Jan 2008 Jan 2011 Jan 2012 Change
Contributions 11,835 10,120 87,408(!) 764%
Volume ($) $1,358,105.87 $636,711.13 $4,021,352.93 532%
Mean Donation $114.75 $62.92 $46.01 -27%
Committees 535 460 1,207 162%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for January 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 13,827 $658,329
DCCC Party Committee 11,906 $332,746
Democracy for America Organization 10,555 $187,149
Democratic Party of WI Party Committee 7,400 $152,406
CREDO SuperPAC SuperPAC 5,845 $133,896

 

There are a couple of big surprises in the data–the DCCC and the CREDO SuperPac make the leaderboard for the first time and buck expectations by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars with an average donation size under $30. We believe small donors and disclosure are the key to a healthy political system and it looks like folks are coming around.

We have another milestone to celebrate around the office: 2 million donations! And we got there only a year and a half after we hit 1 million. Averaged out over that period, we're talking 55,000 donations a month during some of slowest months of the election cycle.

Here's why it matters: our infrastructure is what turns grassroots passion into political results. While the "enthusiasm gap" was making headlines across the country, Democratic donors flocked to ActBlue to connect with their chosen candidates. Our infrastructure enabled the Wisconsin Recall efforts to demonstrate their fundraising oomph in real time, and helped labor issues find their way back into national discourse. Today that conversation is in a dramatically different place than it was a few months ago.

But 2012 is where the rubber meets the road. It's our transparent, participatory architecture against the small and increasingly shadowy world of Republican fundraising unleashed by Citizen's United.

2 million grassroots donations or five guys writing blank checks: which system would you rather have?

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post has a well-reported item up on mobile giving and campaigns. The takeaway is that everyone knows mobile giving is the next big thing but the actual "how" of the process as it relates to political donations is still unclear. As I've mentioned before, what we're dealing with is fundamentally an infrastructure problem. Amazon's one-click model works for two reasons: you can buy almost anything on Amazon and people are now broadly comfortable with the idea of purchasing things on the internet (in no small part due to Amazon's work in that area).

In the political world, neither of those conditions hold. For starters, the environment is far more fractured, with most candidates pursuing a la carte solutions. If you take a random sample of 25 campaigns, you'll find ten different vendors are responsible for processing donations, each with a particular set of technical constraints that means they can't play nice with one another. That means that each campaign would have to set up their own mobile donation platform, which in turn would require donors to create a mobile profile for each and every candidate they want to give to. Surprisingly, most people aren't up for that. 

Second, online political donations are a fairly new phenomenon and people's comfort zones are still adjusting. A few years ago, an online fundraising program was an optional part of your campaign plan. Today, it's essential. That change happened very fast, and it's why we regularly receive calls from folks who want to give to a candidate but aren't comfortable doing so over the internet. That's not unusual in circumstances like these. In 1998, Newsweek ran an editorial questioning whether anyone would ever buy books–much less other things–using internet retailers like Amazon. Today, the questions are somewhat different: will Amazon kill off book publishers, for example.

The reason ActBlue Express has succeeded relative to many other approaches to mobile giving is that we provide the same clearinghouse advantages that Amazon enjoys. You can create a single profile and give to every Democrat listed on our site (which is to say: almost every Democrat). Instead of campaigns pursuing endlessly duplicative infrastructure and trying to lure donors to this website or that website, they can come to a single place and connect with a pre-existing community of users. Crucially, the fact that these users have ActBlue Express accounts means they're donors and they have a pretty high level of engagement with politics. 

The fact that we've been around for a while and people know and trust us doesn't hurt either.

But the single greatest advantage we enjoy in here is the fact that we're a political committee, not a business. That means we can innovate in ways that for-profit vendors can't match. Simply put, they have to look after their bottom line. Because margins in this business are thin, if something isn't going to be immediately profitable it tends to land on the back burner. At ActBlue, we're able to get out in front of things like mobile giving because we're not as constrained in that regard. Our constituency of interest is our userbase, not our shareholders. If we can provide value to our users, that's the metric we're interested in.

ActBlue Express is simply one expression of that core tenet. 

The third quarter of this year was an odd duck, because it mixed the massive off-year fundraising of the Wisconsin Recalls with the start of federal campaign season as seen in the kickoff of the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Those two events brought a huge influx of grassroots donors to ActBlue, driving down our average contribution size to around $50. It’s shaping up to be another big cycle for grassroots fundraising.

Number of contributions 199,585
Total raised $10,229,392.76
Average Contribution size $51.25
Committees receiving money 1,388

 

Here’s how those numbers stack up relative to 2009, and to the same point in the last presidential election cycle (2007). Change is calculated with 2009 as the baseline.

Q3 2007 Q3 2009 Q3 2011 Change
Contributions 36,938 105,266 199,585 47%
Volume ($) $4,793,375.78 $9,368,191.06 $10,229,392.76 9%
Mean Donation $129.87 $89.00 $51.25 -42%
Committees 625 1,160 1,388 19%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for Q3 2011.

Name Race Donors Dollars
PCCC Organization 41,715 $418,964
Democracy for America (WI Recall) Organization 38,694 $440,989
PCCC Wisconsin Recall Organization 37,951 $356,104
Democracy for America Organization 34,961 $385,044
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 27,756 $943,366

On Wednesday, the Washington Post broke the news that the American Action Network, a Republican "charitable organization" along the lines of American Crossroads GPS, was financed entirely by 11 checks, with 82% of its funding coming from just three donors.

AAN and Crossroads GPS are not required to disclose donor information and can protect donors from any blowback that might result from their decision to influence the political process or the specific ways in which AAN/Crossroads GPS employ their money to accomplish that goal. As a result, donors get to have their cake and eat it too: they're largely invisible to the American voter, but highly influential within the small community of policymakers that make legislative decisions. It's an appealing proposition.

There are a number of significant downsides to this arrangement, however. Before I get into them, I'd like to be clear: there's no problem with giving money to political candidates. There's no problem with giving a lot of money to political candidates. There is a problem with giving undisclosed money to political candidates. 

At the most basic level, disclosure is a mental shortcut for voters. It's a way for them to consider the source, to divine what interests believe supporting this candidate is in their interest. If that information isn't available, it undermines democratic accountability. If voters can't get access to any information about who is backing whom, their role in the political process becomes little more than a patina of consent on top of a structure they are prevented from informing themselves about.

So you have a situation in which, over the long term, rational actors are undermining the very system they depend on. Politicians need to finance their campaigns and want to outraise their opponents. Their donors want to insulate themselves from the consequences of their speech. The tragic irony is that in doing so, they are sawing the foundations of a functioning democracy–information and accountability–out from underneath themselves. Left to its own devices, the emerging situation becomes a race to the bottom: who can raise the most money while revealing the least information about its source. It's not hard to see how that worsens what Prof. Larry Lessig calls "institutional corruption," and ultimately paralyzes our government. 

That's why what we do here at ActBlue is so important. Our platform gives small donors a stake in the process and enables them to make themselves felt in major races, while also preserving the transparency that's key to a stable democracy. That transparency, in turn, lets donors assess the impact of their donations in aggregate, which makes them more likely to give again. In short, our virtuous cycle counteracts the vicious cycle kickstarted by Citizens United. 

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