Is the focus on small-dollar donors for Democrats leading 2020 candidates down the wrong path? It was a question raised Wednesday at C&E’s CampaignTech East conference in Washington, DC.
In February, the DNC announced that for candidates to get on stage at its two presidential primary debates, they would have to meet certain fundraising criteria. Specifically, they would need to raise money from 65,000 donors in at least 20 different states. Quickly after the threshold was announced, at least one candidate, former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), started to try to game the system. Now, consultants are worried about more lasting repercussions for their side.
“We have optimized, because of the 65,000 small-dollar donor debate prerequisite, for low-dollar acquisition right now,” said Shomik Dutta, a partner at Higher Ground Labs, which has funded a slate of political technology startups over the past two cycles. “So every presidential candidate is making a low-dollar argument to coastal activists and what we are missing is the opportunity to do some framing of our general [election] opponent in the states that matter.”
A recent analysis of ad spending on Facebook by Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive backed up some of Dutta’s assessment. “Most Democrats are barely spending on ads that mention Trump. Even though they are all trying to raise money, few are using the President’s name to do so,” the firm reported April 16. The lone exception was Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator is already running ads “as if he were already running in a general election.”
On Wednesday, Dutta noted that President Trump is spending heavily on persuasion ads in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, which “really matter in the general.” According to transparency reports from companies like Facebook, Democrats are running “hyper-targeted persuasion arguments to our base in early primary states that don’t matter.”
Democrats, Dutta continued, are “missing a framing opportunity.”
Tatenda Musapatike, senior director of campaigns at ACRONYM, said that while she was excited to see engagement of small-dollar donors over traditional party rainmakers, she shared some of Dutta’s concern.
“When you are a campaign based on small-dollar donations, it’s a question of how you’re able to fight for the resources,” Musapatike said. “It doesn’t need to be necessarily, ‘Trump wants to build the wall, raise $5.’ It can be more about the party, the values that we believe in and hold.”
Musapatike added: “As a party, we need to have a more unifying message that is engaging to people. They need to believe in the mission.”
The idea that spending too much time chasing small-dollar donors could muddle priorities for the 2020 field is far from a major concern for most Democratic practitioners, but it does reflect a more generalized feeling among digital strategists on the left that the party is behind when it comes to digital outreach.
Mary Bell of Democratic digital firm Mothership Strategies instead framed the discussion around the difference between online and offline actions.
“I think what motivates someone to donate money is different from what motivates them to take an offline action,” she said.