The fact that Republicans are approaching our struggling down-ballot fundraising as an "ActBlue problem" shows that many in the party don’t understand the challenge we need to address. Our problem is not technology. The left doesn’t have a technological advantage over the right because of ActBlue. It’s investment and education.
Let’s start with this question, does ActBlue help Democrats raise money? It sure does.
ActBlue gives progressive organizations the ability to create unlimited branded, mobile-friendly contribution forms. They offer “Express Lane” which provides single tap donations if you’re already logged in.
They allow tandem fundraising forms where campaigns can split dollars raised on a form and cross-selling where donors can be prompted to give to someone else after their initial donation with a single click. They fully integrate with the leading compliance software platforms on the left. In essence, it’s a place to push people to have them donate to progressive campaigns and causes — nationally.
But it's not like similar technology hasn't been available in one form or another from vendors on the right including Revv, Victory Passport, and the platform I work for, Anedot, whose founder Paul Dietzel recently launched a separate, donor-focused platform named Right.us.
Now, one of the reasons ActBlue gets so much credit is that it’s a conduit PAC. As a result, an FEC report will show “ActBlue” giving candidates money. That's misleading to some: ActBlue didn't give candidates that money, individual donors did.
When ActBlue was set up 15 years ago, the regulatory environment meant that establishing as a conduit PAC was the best option. Now, there are better structures that allow campaigns to report their contributions directly.
Let’s be clear, though, ActBlue didn’t raise the money for these campaigns. Those campaigns and allies raised the dollars. While the platform’s technology was a helping factor for these donations, donors were primarily driven to those pages from email, social media, and texting by the campaigns and friendly organizations.
In fact, another misconception is that ActBlue is the “official” platform for Democrats. No, it's not. As of October 2018, the Democrats.org donation link still pointed to an in-house donation form built on Stripe. In November 2018, Democrats.org switched their main donation link to point to their ActBlue donation page for the first time.
The DNC has never forced any candidates or committees to use ActBlue. In fact, many Democrats still use other payment processors like NGP VAN. The progressive free market has chosen ActBlue among their other choices. Their success, though, isn’t because of their party backing.
The online fundraising edge that Democrats have comes from having invested more in list building, a tactic more of their general consultants accept as a necessary early expense for a campaign. They've also done a better job training their candidates to expect to divert substantial resources into digital early on. Republicans still lean heavily toward conserving dollars until the end of a campaign to spend most of it on TV.
Digital fundraising can be a tricky art, but the math is pretty straightforward. You use petitions, surveys, and other means of data collection to build large email and cell phone lists. You then utilize those lists to ask supporters to give you money in a tactful way.
Building these lists requires significant early financial investment. President Trump understands this, which is why he’s spent millions building his supporter lists through petitions and surveys. Republican campaigns only spent 4 percent of their total advertising dollars on digital in 2018 compared to 44 percent by President Trump in 2016.
That’s where the problem lies. Look down the ballot to incumbent Republican members of Congress, state senators, and state House members. You’ll still find elected officials who don’t even have a form set up to collect online donations. The tools are already available to them, they just aren’t using them effectively.
Much of this can be tied back to consultants who've traditionally made their money on TV and direct mail. It’s hard for Republican digital campaign consultants to do their job effectively when they’re not given the budget or attention to do so. It’s ridiculous they're being attacked for their work when they aren’t given the resources they need.
Ultimately, Republicans need to invest more in list building and education. We will not beat the Democrats by lying to ourselves and looking to Washington for a technological solution to a problem that technology cannot solve. We need our state and county parties, congressional, state Senate, and state House campaigns to invest and put an emphasis on digital fundraising. No technology is going to wave a magic wand and make that happen.
Patrick O’Keefe is the Director of Political Success at Anedot. He is also the Program Director and Chairman of the Advisory Council for the Master’s in Political Communication at the University of Florida; the first fully online program in the country focused exclusively on “digital in politics.” He previously served as the Executive Director of the Maryland Republican Party.