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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. 

There's been a flurry of coverage about down-ballot races ahead of the election, based on this Larry Sabato post:

The statehouses will provide the third leg of the Republicans’ 2010 victory. We have long suggested the GOP would gain a net +6 governorships. We now believe they will win +8. This boon to the GOP for redistricting will be enhanced by a gain of perhaps 300 to 500 seats in the state legislatures, and the addition of Republican control in 8 to 12 legislative chambers around the country.

Redistricting matters, and the GOP is acting accordingly, with the Republican Governor's Association (RGA) taking $1,000,000 from News Corp., the parent company of Fox News. Democrats are, to our credit, a little less comfortable funneling huge sums of corporate cash (however "fair and balanced" it may be) into downballot races, but that doesn't mean we're helpless.

Down-ballot races are largely overlooked by national press outlets despite their central role in the redistricting process that will start in 2011. The flip side of that problem is that, as a donor, your dollar goes a long way in these races. Ad buys are cheaper. Materials costs are lower. So taking the time to Google your State Senator or State Legislator and send him/her $5-$25 dollars on ActBlue is going to mean a lot to that campaign, especially if you encourage a few other people to do the same.

In fact, the 100,000,000th dollar to go to a Democrat through ActBlue went to Monk Elmer, who is running for Wisconsin State Senate in the first district. And he and the rest of the Wisconsin State Senate races are a good example of how Democrats can fight back against the GOP's attempt at a down-ballot coup.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party has been dilligent about getting their state-level candidates up and raising on ActBlue. Wisconsin State Senate races alone have raised $250,000 (all-time) on ActBlue, and, more importantly, our tools have revolutionized the way these smaller races fundraise. Here's Kory Kozloski, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee, on what ActBlue has meant in his races:

ActBlue has been a fantastic tool for our candidates and their supporters. It’s allowed us to add a whole new dimension to our fundraising efforts. It's given us the ability to tap the same online donors as national and statewide campaigns, and harness those resources for State Assembly and State Senate races.

ActBlue has also made our traditional fundraising tactics like candidate call-time, direct mail, and small dollar calls much more effective by allowing supporters to give instantaneously. Not only has ActBlue greatly increased our response rate, but it also saves a great deal of time and money that would otherwise be spent on pledge letters and chase calls.

That additional money and savings in terms of both staff time and materials means more competitive downballot races. It means Democratic candidates can resist the huge sums of corporate money that the GOP Is pouring into these races, and do so in a way that's consistent with Democratic principles.

But there's also lasting change taking place here, in the form of staffers and candidates trained in new approaches to fundraising, and with the confidence and skills to reach new donor communities. As those staffers and candidates move through the political world, they'll bring that expertise to new campaigns and new offices and help change the way we–political insiders and ordinary citizens alike–view political fundraising.

To steal a line from a former state senator, that's change you can believe in.

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