Rubber, Meet Road

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?

The Smell of Deceit

Over at Greg Sargent's blog, Adam Serwer (who also blogs at the American Prospect) has a good post up on the GOP reaction to President Obama's executive order requiring contractors who do business with the federal government to disclose their political donations. 

I predicted the GOP would react this way in an earlier post, but I didn't expect the additional layer of irony that is John Yoo arguing for "a right to political privacy" in the Wall Street Journal. John Yoo, you'll recall, is the guy who said the President could order a village massacred. He's the guy who wrote the torture memos and argued that the fourth amendment doesn't apply to the War on Terror. That exemption was the basis for the warrantless wiretapping program exposed by the New York Times in 2005. And the final sign that Yoo is way out on a limb here is simply that Justice Antonin Scalia disagrees with him:

[R]unning a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights…

So, to recap, according to John Yoo, the American people don't have any right to privacy. The government can seize your phone records, lock you away forever, have you tortured, and whatever else seems like it might stop the terrorists. But should Uncle Sam ask contractors that stand to benefit financially from their campaign donations to disclose who they're giving to–well, that would be government overreach.

Since this issue is complicated, let me boil it down to a few key facts:

  1. The Supreme Court has explicity rejected the argument that disclosure "chills speech." When you speak using your voice, people know that it's you speaking. The same should be true when you speak using your money. 
  2. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court specifically called for disclosure: "[w]ith the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters… citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests."
  3. The Republican Party has blocked off all other avenues for protecting disclosure. The DISCLOSE Act "failed" in the Senate, as a 59-39 majority in favor of it was insuffient to overcome a Republican filibuster. And our General Counsel has written extensively about the way in which the 3-3 Republican-Democrat split in the FEC has rendered the body impotent. The executive order was hardly the preferred option.

Those three facts and the choice of John Yoo as messenger should tell you everything you need to know about the sincerity, coherence and good intentions that underlie the GOP's position on disclosure. 

Read the editorial, it's a masterwork of mendacity, a cavalcade of calumnies, a fraudulent fantasy penned by a man who shouldn't have an iota of credibility on matters of speech, privacy or democracy. On a personal note, I find the sickest thing about Yoo's editorial to be its view that the assault, imprisonment and murder of Civil Rights supporters and disclosure laws are equally injurious to our democracy. Taking a beating in the press is in no way the same as actually taking a beating

Ruffini on Mobile Giving

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant, recently diagnosed the ills that plague mobile giving:

it can be pretty frustrating watching these solutions get tripped up in the bureaucratic thicket of the FEC, or the closed ecosystem of the wireless carriers — with all the architectural limits they carry that the free Internet does not.

He argues that the point-of-sale constraint of Square, SMS payment limits, and FEC disclosure requirements are the major obstacles to mobile giving. Here's the problem: simplicity and ease of use are important, but the real limit Ruffini is bumping up against–by his own admission–is the lack of scalable infrastructure on the right. That lack forces Ruffini into awkward spaces, like calling for mobile operating systems to update their OS, or the creation of new apps to facilitate political giving. It's not that these are impossible, or not worth doing, but that their value is unknown relative to the costs they impose on developers and carriers.

Fortunately, over here we've got that problem solved.

Want to collect donations in real time? Text or email your audience with a link to an ActBlue page. And, unlike asking people to download apps, collecting email/phone information at political events is pretty commonplace, as are email solicitations. Checking mail is a core functionality of almost any mobile data device, be it smartphone, iPad or laptop. Devices will proliferate, change and converge, but email will almost certainly remain. The ubiquitous nature of email means people don't have to leave their comfort zone to give, provided you offer them a simple way to do so. And, because we've already borne the costs and seen the results of our innovation, we're in a better position to negotiate the sort of partnerships that Ruffini outlines.

In short, ActBlue didn't need to build, "something that can create a reality distortion field" (Orwellian!) to produce $174+ million for Democrats. We took a means that already existed (email/websites) and made it easy for people to apply it to a new space (political fundraising), while building in the flexibility that would allow it to grow and improve with changing circumstances (not easy!). As a result, ActBlue is now both an invaluable source of funds and a giant proving ground for candidates and best fundraising practices.

Finally, an insidery point: Ruffini is a consultant who necessarily makes his living by selling his insights and strategies. ActBlue is something fundamentally different. Because we're a political nonprofit that makes our tools available for free to all Democrats, we're creating of economies of scale that don't exist on the right. When we innovate, thousands of Democratic campaigns, consultants and committees benefit, and they don't have to pay a cent. I imagine Ruffini's innovations carry a far higher pricetag–man's got to eat–which hinders their adoption.

Infrastructure or Opportunism

Last week, Ben Smith linked to a study (.pdf) by the Wesleyan Media Project on political spending in the 2010 cycle. The major findings: Republican-leaning interest groups outspent similar Democratic groups by 9:1, and hold a 3:2 advantage in overall spending. Put another way, with a 9:1 advantage in interest group spending, Republicans were only able to eke out a 3:2 advantage in total spending.

ActBlue is a major part of that story. The $80M we've sent to 3,600 Democratic candidates and committees this cycle stands in stark contrast to the "dark money" funneled through GOP outside groups. Unlike the constellation of 501c4 organizations and "Super PACs" that have helped Republicans, ActBlue is transparent. Our donations are contributions from inviduals to campaigns, not PAC donations. We report those donations to the FEC. Our numbers update in real time. In fact, while outfits like American Crossroads have flourished, GOP attempts to duplicate ActBlue's success have languished.

Those failures highlight the ridiculousness of attempts to brand Crossroads and Crossroads GPS as "Republican infrastructure." American Crossroads GPS (GPS stands for "Grassroots Policy Strategies;" you can almost hear the cynicism) is a 501c4 organization that doesn't disclose its donors. Original recipe American Crossroads is filed as (.pdf) an independent expenditure PAC. It can accept unlimited amounts of money, but can't give any to campaigns. In short, the groups themselves direct the funds, not the donors, and these groups can't help campaigns beyond the air war; that's neither "grassroots" nor "infrastructure."

Both groups owe a lot of their success to the Citizens United v. FEC decision by the Supreme Court and an opportunistic filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act by Senate Republicans. Moreover, the Crossroads model of fundraising is toxic among the electorate. As a short-term gamble to pick up seats while the RNC flounders, it may work. As a long-term strategy, it's self-defeating. After 11/2/2010, these groups will lose much of their raison d'etre, becoming a tax liability and a target for Democrats. If they continue to serve any purpose, it will be to game the GOP presidential nomination in 2011-12, which is shaping up to be an establisment v. grassroots contest. Targeted in critical early states, huge contributions from anonymous billionaires could do a lot to help a Mitt Romney-style candidate beat out a more populist foe.

Anonymity

In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

Creating Possibilities in Alaska

A few days ago, I wrote about the ways in which ActBlue makes donors nimble and campaigns competitive by helping resources get where they need to go, quickly. I used the Alaska Senate race as an example, and in response a spokesperson for the McAdams campaign emailed this statement along:

Because of ActBlue thousands of people, including Alaskans, were able to donate funds to the Scott McAdams for Senate Campaign. The groundswell of grassroots support helped generate even more momentum for the campaign in the days immediately following the Alaska primary election. It was a great way to illustrate how many people support Scott and is a reminder that individuals can really impact the way campaigns are funded.

I think the key word there is "illustrate." When you give through ActBlue, you're not just helping the candidate out with a little cash. You're also sending a signal to everyone watching those numbers that the support is there. Anyone with 30 seconds and access to the internet can see how their chosen candidate is doing.

Today, McAdams is closing in on Senator Mark Begich's 2008 ActBlue total, and Sen. Murkowski, the GOP incumbent defeated in her primary by Joe Miller, has launched a write-in campaign. In short, what was once a safe GOP seat is now a wide open race.

Your donations on ActBlue have a lot to do with that.

Misreading Tea Leaves

Jonathan Martin has a story on POLITICO about the Republican edge in third-party spending. The argument runs as follows: conservative groups like American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and the constellation of powerbrokers Yahoo called the Shadow GOP have outspent outside Democratic groups. That's true. Where Martin errs is when he equates that with Democratic donor disengagement and disarray:

Liberal-leaning organizations answer that it’s not a matter of desire but something more simple: They don’t have the money.

And that’s partly because, even after the historic accomplishments of the current Congress, some on the left are unhappy that priorities, such as a climate change bill, weren’t passed.

That strikes me as a misreading of the situation. For those of you who are political traditionalists, I'll note that the major Democratic committees, (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) all raised more in August than the major Republican committees. The Democratic committees also spent more and have more cash on hand. 

If you're curious about how outside groups are doing, let's compare some quick numbers. According to Justin Elliott of Salon, American Crossroads raised $2.6M in August, with $2.4M of that coming from just three billionaires. In contrast, ActBlue sent $4.2M to 1,422 Democratic candidates and committees, via 34,000 donations. It's true that American Crossroads does something different than ActBlue–they'll be making ad buys. We won't. Instead, we'll be sending money to people who make ad buys. That seems like a fairly minor difference, from the perspective of Martin's argument.

There are two things at work here, and neither of them are donor unhappiness.

The first is a change (a change that Martin's editors have noted) in how individuals relate to large institutions that's become an essential part of the zeitgeist. The Tea Party derives its support from a claim to represent authentic conservative values, rather than compromised establishment mores. ActBlue makes a less-ideological pitch: we send your money where you tell us to send it–provided you're sending it to a Democrat. But both ideas feed off the zeitgeist in different ways, and represent a shift away from the more traditional conduits that Martin quotes in his story. But it's a shift, not a diminution.

Second, a major factor behind support for Republican groups like American Crossroads is the sheer disarray of the Steele-driven RNC. In the table I linked to above, the RNC is the only body with a negative change in cash on hand, and the Republicans have been forced to compensate. In short, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Martin examines the lagging indicator on the Democratic side and the leading indicator on the Republican side, and then concludes that Democrats are off their game.

Leaving the Silo

In the wake of the upset in the GOP DE-Sen primary, there's been a lot of chatter about what the Tea Party means, vis-a-vis the Republican Party. One of the most compelling takes, in my opinion, is that the Tea Party represents a decentralized web of Republican supporters, and that decentralization is the cause of much of the intra-TP conflict and the difficulty the Republican establishment has in co-opting that passion and using it to benefit their preferred candidates (See: Grayson, Trey; Castle, Mike).

This isn't a new story, though it may be one the Republicans haven't heard yet. The Democratic Party has already undergone many of these changes. The growth of online communities like DailyKos, Democratic infrastructure like ActBlue, and eventually the Obama wave had a lot of inputs–minority status and the old saw about necessity and invention, frustration among the base and Americans broadly–but the key point is that growth was largely uncoordinated. The rebranding of the DNC is a recognition of that reality, Natalie Foster, the DNC's New Media Director, told TechPresident's Nancy Scola:

It's not just about the DNC anymore. It's about the Democratic Party. […] This could become that something that any kid could
draw in chalk in front of their house, that any college kid could riff
on.

That was my first thought as well, which is why I was surprised to see Ben Smith snark "this will turn things right around." While we're only a few weeks out from the election, the point of changes like these isn't to tip the scales in pivotal house races, it's to build a party that is tune with the changing tenor of American life. The same could be said of the growth of grassroots fundraising, or the White House's embrace of non-traditional media outlets. (Also, in fairness, Ben picked up Nancy's take.)

To return to my original point, while there may be an equivalence in process between Democrats and Republicans, I don't mean to suggest an equivalence in content. The Republican embrace of Kristolismo over the past two years has radicalized their base in a way that the Democratic resurgence did not. Embracing a base conditioned by years of opportunistic fear-mongering about "socialism," Islam, the deficit and terrorism seems likely to produce legislative outcomes that are significantly less benign than the healthcare reform bill.

Wisconsin Cheese

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.