Over the past five years, there’s been a sea change in grassroots fundraising for progressives. Donald Trump motivated lots of donors to give, but he hasn’t been the ongoing catalyst.
Since the day it started in 2004, ActBlue has processed more than $9.6 billion. Of that, almost $6.5 billion has come in since January 2019.
That money has flowed outward — beyond presidential politics. In 2020, for instance, Democrats outraised Republicans in almost all of the most competitive House seats across the country.
And the flood of dollars has continued — 2021 was the largest off-year in ActBlue’s history. They processed more contributions and raised more money than in 2019 (when a hyper-competitive Democratic primary was motivating lots of people to give for the first time).
We’re in the middle of a new reality, but the way we think about campaign spending hasn’t kept pace with the commitment we see from grassroots donors.
This month, in The New Republic, Michael Sokolove wrote about Amy McGrath, who outraised Mitch McConnell in the last election by $27 million — and lost.
For lots of people, that outcome is a strategic and moral failing.
And with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to look at all that money side by side with the final vote margin and say that, obviously, the dollars could have been better spent elsewhere — that McGrath and her team should have made a different set of choices to benefit the broader Democratic cause.
But that critique ignores four important considerations:
1. Over the past decade, polling results have become a lot more volatile. We can all think of races where the final margins weren’t anything like what we saw in surveys. So the only responsible choice for a campaign is to execute the best program it possibly can. You want to finish the election with zero regrets about what else you might have done. And not for nothing, a well-financed campaign gives you the opportunity to supplement your polling with other kinds of research to help you understand the trajectory of your race.
2. There is a strategic advantage in forcing Mitch McConnell — the Majority Leader of the United States Senate — to spend on his own campaign instead of sending the money he raises to candidates in tighter races. It’s not a stretch to believe that McGrath’s constant pressure kept McConnell from doing more to support his two vulnerable incumbents in Georgia, for instance. Plus, if you believe Democrats should be competing everywhere — and you should — then you should acknowledge the downstream benefits that come from long-shot challenges. The McGrath campaign engaged volunteers, donors, and activists who will have a part to play in future Democratic victories in Kentucky.
3. The McGrath campaign made a set of ongoing choices to treat grassroots supporters with respect — up to and including a refusal to send fundraising emails when they could no longer spend the money they might raise. Last week, Toby Fallsgraff (full disclosure: a dear friend) outlined some of those decisions in a Medium post that I cannot recommend enough.
4. Donors get to decide where they send their dollars. Very few people develop detailed cause-benefit models when they pull out their credit cards to support a campaign. They give to the candidates who offer some spark of inspiration or (sometimes more frequently) they spend their money to register opposition to a policymaker they despise. Let’s be real: Anyone running a meaningful campaign against McConnell was going to raise eye-watering sums of money in 2020.
If a growing tide of activist dollars continues to create the possibility that more types of candidates wind up with extra budget and additional resources, our choice can’t be to limit the races we contest just because the odds are against us.
But we should constantly be asking whether we’re spending the dollars entrusted to us well.
For starters, campaigns that build great fundraising infrastructure should be using that resource for more purposes than their own coffers. McGrath used her email list to raise money for pandemic response efforts in Kentucky before the election and to support the Ossoff and Warnock runoff campaigns after she conceded. Both of those choices were smart.
In 2022, I want to see candidates in a similar position fully fund the coordinated campaigns in their states — with the expectation that stronger Democratic turnout across the board will make their own operations more successful. I want to see them launch tandem fundraising pages for Democrats running for local office — with the expectation that those efforts will boost their own bottom line.
We should embrace the idea that spikes in donations are an invitation to try new things. A lot of campaigns broke new ground — finding ways to connect with volunteers online, building relational organizing programs, hosting virtual events that made space for a wider range of supporters to join key moments. But a lot of those things happened because the pandemic didn’t allow for any alternative. In 2022, we should be looking to innovate because doing so is an opportunity to reach and persuade people that we cannot engage with traditional modes of voter contact. And if you’re blowing past your fundraising goals, you should be pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
And we should consider whether the old models for budgeting and support make sense when funding and spending patterns are changing. Campaigns are still going to spend plenty of money on TV advertising, but the efficacy of a 30-second spot is falling as more and more voters fill their time with content on streaming services and social media. Our response to beating fundraising projections can’t be to blindly commit to a new five points of television. And frankly, given the amount of money more campaigns have to spend, we should be reevaluating fee structures and retainer agreements for all kinds of vendors and consultants.
Most importantly, we need to do more to demonstrate to our supporters that we respect the value of their contributions. We should be honest and ethical in our message to donors about the path to victory and what the campaign needs to win. We need to impose more restrictions on how we share email addresses and other supporter data. We can’t manipulate people into making extra contributions with technical trickery or dishonest prompts to give.
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