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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.

Last week, much of the ActBlue office packed our bags and headed to Minneapolis for Netroots Nation 2011 for an opportunity to mingle with our users and fans–thanks to all of you who dropped by our booth for your kind words.

Reflecting on the conference, a number of press figures referred to the atmosphere as "dispirited," or other adjectives amounting to roughly the same thing. I attended panels on campaign finance, the courts, and Afghanistan, and what I saw in those panels was the maturing of a movement. Though the 2010 elections largely obliterated the giddiness of '06-'08, it also gave Democrats a sense of the breadth of the field they need to play on.

Republicans are pushing their agenda at every level: in the states, through the courts, and in Congress. The progressives gathered at Netroots Nation were focused on how they could impact issues that are decided far from the federal battlefields they won in '06 and '08, like campaign finance regulations, court appointments, state laws and national security decisions.

In that sense, "energy" is a really poor gauge of how successful the conference was. Any large, long-term project isn't going to be amenable to the sort of triumphalism and buzz that is the pulse of politics as measured by the media. I'd urge people to look instead at markers of success like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's $3 million raised from 190,000 donors on ActBlue. As POLITICO notes, they are "loaded for battle," a remarkable feat of grassroots fundraising for a group that didn't exist in 2008. Moreover, the PCCC has elected to play a broad role, engaging in federal primaries and working hard to support the recall efforts in Wisconsin. 

The PCCC's combination of talented organizing and effective fundraising through ActBlue means they can engage people and issues that wouldn't get attention otherwise and bring them to the forefront of politics. Progressives looking to do the same in other areas might want to take a cue from them. 

It's worth noting that the RightOnline Convention, in contrast, featured plenty of energy–a firebreathing speech from Michelle Bachmann, a little lighthearted Obama minstrelsy, and an invasion of NN11 by Andrew Breitbart–but the underlying reality was rather grim:

“We’re trying to compete with ActBlue but they’re way, way ahead of us. We’re playing catch-up,” said John Hawkins of Right Wing News. “Their panels are for advanced activism. This is basic, for getting into activism.” A sign in the hallway of RightOnline advertised “proven technology used by millions of Democrats.”

Indeed.

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