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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

A few weeks ago, Nick Confessore of the New York Times wrote a piece about the reluctance of small donors to return to the Obama fold. Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call recently examined the slowdown in traditional fundraising: major bundlers and PACs. For Confessore, the fact that President Obama has to work harder for small donors stems from his sagging popularity. For Toeplitz, it's a sign of the down economy that the deep-pocketed can't dole out the sort of financial largesse they used to.

Both of these theses have some real problems.

Confessore runs into the problem that conventional methods of reportage are a terrible fit for assessing as broad a category as grassroots donors. Dozens of interviews are a poor way to figure out what's going on in a population that numbers in the millions. Some people are undoubtedly disappointed in President Obama, but many more may not have tuned into the process yet. In 2007, Democrats were where Republicans are today: focused on a contested primary process to replace a President that was wildly unpopular with their base. It's no surprise that it's harder to engage the Democratic grassroots now; whether that will remain the case is anybody's guess. Finally, it's not as if the President has some special claim to these donors–they're a political constituency like any other. Even if there were reason to accept Confessore's thesis without question, we should be celebrating the fact that political actors have to work for their support, rather than ignoring it as irrelevant or taking it for granted. Today, there are lines of accountability and financial interdependence between legislators and grassroots donors that didn't exist ten years ago, and that's a good thing.

The Toeplitz piece is a bit harder to find bright spots in, as it takes the same basic error and adds a laundry-list of excuses for a poor fundraising quarter. Hurricane Irene, the debt ceiling melee, the (crippling!) impact of the economy on our nation's wealthiest donors, and even the Jewish New Year all come in for blame for the lower-than-average haul, as if that were the important aspect of those events.

I bring these articles up because ActBlue has access to a pretty good cross-section of small donor activity. Every day, we process contributions to state and federal candidates from across the country. That immunizes us to some extent from the problems these articles run in to. In the spirit of lending a little clarity to the debate, here are our numbers from Q3 2009, and Q3 2011:

'09: $9,368,191 from 105,266 donors to 1,160 committees. 

'11: $10,230,421 from 199,595 donors to 1,388 committees. 

Hardly the declines we'd expect to see if Confessore and Toeplitz are right. Grassroots donors are more engaged in the fundraising process than ever before. Even if the sources Toeplitz quotes are right, it may not be the case that fundraising has declined, rather that its character and the methods used to go it are changing and the political sector is lagging a bit in recognizing that trend. As political fundraising becomes increasingly digital and grassroots, the value of traditional methods may lose a little of their centrality. (They'll still be important!) That's not a bad thing–it will create a political system that's more dynamic and has fewer barriers to entry. There will be more voices and more choices for voters to listen to and weigh, and that's the essence of representative democracy. 

In July, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) asked ActBlue to set up a draft fund for Elizabeth Warren. By mid-August the PCCC had shattered all records for the largest and fastest growing draft fund in our history, raising over $102,000 from around 7,000 supporters even before Elizabeth Warren formed an exploratory committee for a Massachusetts Senate run.

Today, their unprecedented success is the reason we're sending her committee a six-figure check.

The PCCC's landmark efforts are not only impressive, they tell us something important about the way politics is changing in response to the digital age. In 2009, the PCCC was a brand new organization. Today, the PCCC has a played a central role in a number of key battles over the last two years — from the fight for the public option and the push to keep Keith Olbermann on the air, to this year's Wisconsin recall elections and the Draft Warren fund. With the help of a large and active donor community, the PCCC has raised millions even though their average donation size is just under $15. In short, they've become a major political player at a speed and donation size that would've been unthinkable five years ago.

Much the same can be said of ActBlue. Seven years after our founding in 2004, we've become the single largest source of political funds in the United States. Our mission was (and is) to give voice to the voiceless, and bring attention to those donors and communities that are often ignored or overlooked. We call it "Democratizing Power," and this is how it works:

ActBlue raises up small donors, who raise up the PCCC, which raises up Elizabeth Warren. 

It's an organic, bottom-up process that's based on shifting the incentives that politicians face in a direction that's a win for everybody involved and the political system at large. By using ActBlue, the PCCC can demonstrate to everyone who cares to look that they can have a major impact on campaigns, and their donors can see exactly how powerful they are when they work together. Politicians learn that grassroots donors can be counted on to produce major results when it matters. And over time we get a political system that's responsive to the needs of folks who contribute $25, not just those who can afford $2500 donations.

Our architecture and their work–which has already raised another $7,000+ for Warren–improves your government. It's a good thing, man.

In yesterday's Washington Post, T.W. Farnam apparently thought it would be illuminating to compare grassroots donors to addicts. The article is the other half of a classic D.C. lose-lose attack on the grassroots: if you don't give, you're a feckless mass who can't be trusted to come through for candidates, and if you do give you're rubes at mercy of canny political operatives.

Unconsidered in the article is the apparently outlandish possibility that grassroots donors are making their own decisions about who to support–that they aren't just money pinatas to be beaten by enterprising staffers when cash gets low. Crazy, I know. 

Beyond the condescending frame and patronizing tone, the article still has a huge problem: what's the alternative? Over the past two years we've seen a marked erosion of campaign finance law, always to the benefit of monied interests. If grassroots donors don't step up to provide a counterweight to that ever-increasing concentration of power, the end result will be the total capture of our electoral system by those interests. Voters will just be the people who show up on election day to ratify a choice that was made long before ballots were printed.

And that's the real reason why grassroots giving matters: by engaging in the fundraising process, grassroots donors are taking ownership of their political future. To use a well-worn GOP chestnut, they have "skin in the game." Grassroots donors raised over half a million dollars for Kathy Hochul (D-NY) and helped her pull out an unlikely win in NY-26. That kind of participation fulfills the promise of American democracy, and shouldn't be treated like some kind of hideous affliction brought on by the digital age. 

Relative to our numbers last cycle and the cycle before, ActBlue has seen steady growth in volume and an explosion in grassroots giving related to the upcoming recalls.

ActBlue’s Q2 numbers speak to the seismic impact of Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) overreach in Wisconsin. Five months after his decision to bust public employee unions in Wisconsin first made the headlines, recall committees hold positions 3-4 on the ActBlue leaderboard, with contribution sizes around $10.

Moreover, their success has not gone unnoticed, eliciting attacks on them and ActBlue itself from George Allen and writers on Andrew Breitbart’s big government site.

Number of contributions 142,042
Total raised $9,113,502.20
Average Contribution size $64.16
Committees receiving money 1,106

 

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.

Q2 2007 Q2 2009 Q2 2011 Change
Contributions 25,714 31,677 142,042 348%
Volume ($) $3,387,613.13 $6,076,573.92 $9,113,502.20 50%
Mean Donation $131.74 $191.83 $64.16 -66%
Committees 449 810 1,106 36%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for Q2 2011.

Name Race Donors Dollars
PCCC Organization 31,718 $310,983
Democracy for America Organization 29,395 $336,451
DFA Wisconsin Recall Organization 22,103 $221,882
PCCC Recall Committee (WI) Organization 21,323 $199,032
Kathy Hochul NY-26 14,640 $616,094

May was an interesting month. Kathy Hochul’s race in NY-26 was obviously the headliner, but ActBlue grew relative to April thanks to a variety of other committees posting five-figure totals. It also saw the first appearance of the DCCC in the ActBlue monthly leaderboard.

Number of contributions 45,787
Total raised $2,679,384.73
Average Contribution size $58.52
Committees receiving money 728
Fundraising pages receiving money 789
Pages created 400

 

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.

May 2007 May 2009 May 2011 Change
Contributions 6,748 7,806 45,787 486%
Volume ($) $682,873.38 $1,194,114.69 $2,679,384.73 124%
Mean Donation $101.20 $152.97 $58.52 -62%
Committees 282 527 728 38%

 

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

Name Race Donors Dollars
Kathy Hochul NY-26 14,132 $542,786
Democracy for America Organization 7,042 $111,431
PCCC Organization 3,961 $37,746
DCCC Organization 3,134 $69,660
DailyKos Organization 1,963 $25,597

Over at DailyKos, David Nir has a post up asking "what ever happened to the right's version of ActBlue?" It's a good question. As David shows, the right's attempts to replicate our success have resulted in failure after failure. (He misses my all-time favorite, StandUpRed, which is a word-for-word copy of our website.)

Part of the answer to that question lies in the surreal tale of ActRight, as related by Republican Louis J. Marinelli. In brief, ActRight was apparently intended to be an astroturf arm of NOM, based out of a vacant lot in a non-existent area code in Washington D.C. And the underlying weirdness of ActRight speaks to the central tension that's currently roiling the right: their keen appreciation for the symbolic power of grassroots politics and their near-total aversion to it in practice.

The GOP establishment welcomed movement conservatism and the religious right into the Republican fold in the early 80s to help them compete in federal elections. The logic was straightforward: a little lipservice to social conservative rhetoric would give them the votes they'd need to roll back tax rates on corporations and the top income brackets. And though the Rockefeller Republicans who masterminded that Faustian bargain are now all but extinct, that was pretty much the game until now.

But the groups ushered in under Reagan weren't content with their lot as rubes to be shaken down for votes, and slowly increased their clout in congress. As Nate Silver has shown, in 2010 these very conservative voters turned out at a much higher rate than moderates or liberals, finally capturing the Republican Party.

Today, issues like the debt ceiling have put the conservative grassroots at loggerheads with Republican business elites. Moderate Republicans have nowhere to go. They'll be punished for providing anything less than total victory, and punished all the harder if a compromise agreement involves concessions to Democrats. However, if they don't compromise, they'll send the economy back into recession, alienate their fundraising base, and severely damage their presidential prospects. 

A tool like ActBlue for the right only worsens that problem. It would empower exactly the sort of candidates and donors the GOP establishment doesn't want empowered. Their highly insular fundraising networks are one of the only ways they have to keep the wolves at bay; their stranglehold on congressional leadership positions is another. Access to the former is the key to the latter. Until the tension between GOP activists and elites is resolved, Republican attempts to replicate our platform will continue to founder, or limp along as particularly sad patches of astroturf.

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