Republicans and Democrats raise plenty of money online, although they certainly don't do it the same way. Both rely on email, both process credit cards online, but over the past decade, they've tended to build their fundraising programs through paths that differ in a crucial way.
At the CampaignTech East conference earlier this year, Republican digital fundraiser Kate Faherty noted that campaigns and organizations on her side have traditionally focused on list-rentals and "sometimes list-buying.” By contrast, she said that Democrats typically create new lists sometimes organically, other times through paid acquisition, but basically grown one new donor at a time.
In other words, Republicans buy lists, Democrats build them.
In practice, this dynamic means that Republican campaigns have generally gone back to the same pools of small-dollar donors again and again, and many haven't been shy about raffling off their lists to the highest bidder (the email I used to sign up for Newt Gingrich’s list in 2011 is still being sold and resold).
Kate ascribed this Republican tendency to a desire to convert potential donors into actual ones quickly. That imperative is surely a factor, but I suspect that it doesn't explain the difference completely. After all, Democrats surely want to turn supporters into donors right away, too.
Perhaps ActBlue has enabled of Democratic and progressive grassroots fundraising in a way Republican haven't yet enjoyed? This possibility would suggest that WinRed, the Republicans' latest attempt at a grassroots ActBlue equivalent, might set the party on a new path to small-dollar success.
But while ActBlue does ease donations on the left, campaigns like Dean's and Obama's were raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars from enthusiastic digital donors long before that platform existed.
When he recently suggested that a lack of an ActBlue clone wasn’t the Republicans' biggest online fundraising problem, Patrick O’Keefe, in part, blamed TV and direct mail consultants for what he sees as the right's shortfall down-ballot. But when Democrats talk about problems on their side, they often identify the same villains. Democratic digital teams must also compete for budget with consultants accustomed to hefty commissions on TV buys, and too many of their down-ballot campaigns neglect the internet in favor of media they feel they understand.
Perhaps the real contrast between the two parties is actually cultural: Republican and Democratic online fundraising arose from radically different fundraising traditions, and it shapes the ways the two parties approach the problem today.
Democrats have been paying for their campaigns via digital grassroots longer, for one thing. The Dean and Kerry campaigns basically pioneered online small-dollar political donations, tapping into an enthusiasm for change sparked by a desire to stop the Bush administration, and encouraged by the comfort Americans had begun to feel about using credit cards online in the new millennium.
But Democrats also drew from a much older field-organizing tradition, fostered by labor unions and local and national activist groups (remember that Obama was a community organizer himself). Field organizers naturally think in terms of building support one voter at a time, a grassroots mindset also baked into the veterans of the Dean campaign, the early liberal blogosphere and the opposition to the Iraq war. Combine this ethos with the experience of digital communicators brought up in the nonprofit advocacy world, and you naturally end up with a fundraising community that tends to think in terms of finding, persuading and recruiting people to sign up for a cause.
Republican grassroots political fundraising has its roots more in direct mail, dating back to Richard Viguerie and his compatriots in the 1970s. In that world, you didn't build a list, you bought it and you milked it for every dollar you could get out of it, a practice echoed in the baffling persistence of scam PACs on the right today.
Many Republican political communicators also drew from a commercial-marketing background, a factor that encouraged their early adoption of digital microtargeted persuasion advertising in 2004. Neither tradition lends itself to a bottom-up approach to online fundraising, and neither naturally encourages a nurturing approach to digital-donor relationships.
Of course, plenty of Democratic campaigns are buying lists these days, something obvious from the growing number of unsolicited emails that show up in my spam filter. And no one's going to suggest that list-abuse isn't a problem on the left. Plus, the most successful Republican small-dollar fundraising machine to date was built by Brad Parscale for Donald Trump, and he did it one donor at a time, largely via highly targeted Facebook outreach.
But Trump's digital campaign didn't originate in the traditional Republican fundraising world, and I'd argue that other Republican campaigns may need a serious change of mind to truly tap into grassroots enthusiasm down-ballot. For one thing, they should think in terms of long-term relationships with their donors, not just short-term dollars.
More importantly, more practitioners need to learn to respect their lists, which includes not treating its members as a commodity to be bought and sold. Perhaps the best hope for Republicans is the younger generation of fundraising professionals, many of whom embrace this approach, as exemplified in Eric Wilson's Learn/Test/Optimize e-newsletter.
Next up: creating a media ecosystem that does the same.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.