One of the lessons from the recent special House election in Pennsylvanian is that campaigns need to start running a small-dollar donor program focused on connecting with supporters.
Usually conducted via email, a small-dollar donor program allows candidates to directly reach their supporters – especially in rapid response moments – and run a people-powered campaign.
Small-dollar programs are good politics and good strategy.
Small-dollar donors can give to a campaign multiple times over the course of an election, and a strong group of grassroots donors can act as advocates and disseminate the campaign's message.
That frees candidates up from fundraisers and gives them more time to connect with supporters and build a strong campaign message. The hallmarks of a true small-dollar program are a large number of individual contributors, and a low average contribution size.
Take Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district in a historic upset last month. He made the source of his financial contributions a focal point of his campaign.
Like Democrats Doug Jones, Jon Ossoff, and Archie Parnell – all of whom gave Republicans in historically red districts a run for their money in special elections this past year – Lamb ran a campaign powered primarily by small-dollar donors, so much so that his closing argument was about the importance of grassroots contributions.
And it wasn’t just talk: estimates in the days leading up to the election show that Lamb – whose average individual contribution was just $33 – significantly outraised his Republican opponent Rick Saccone, forcing outside Republican groups to flock to the district President Trump won by 20 percentage points to compensate for their candidate’s shortfall.
Lamb’s campaign is just the latest example of the increasingly large role that small-dollar donors will play in the “blue wave” that analysts predict will hit the 2018 midterm elections.
We’ve seen this rise in grassroots participation firsthand at ActBlue as we’ve tracked fundraising trends. In 2017, over half of all ActBlue donors were first-time donors, and the first quarter of 2018 was our biggest quarter ever in terms of dollars raised and the number of candidates and organizations using our tools. More and more campaigns are seeing the power of grassroots donors and investing time and energy into building these communities.
All signs indicate these small-dollar, grassroots donors are more fired up than ever and will be the key to victory in this cycle and beyond. These donors have the power to take on the influence of dark money, corporate spending, and secretive super PACs in campaigns, and to elevate a first-time candidate with a powerful message to the national stage. Small-dollar donors do not just give – they volunteer, tell their friends, organize, and make a pivotal difference in campaigns. Any campaign that isn’t running a robust small-dollar program has a narrower path to victory, plain and simple.
The PA-18 election, Alabama special election, Virginia statewide elections last year, and races across the country have shown that candidates cannot solely rely on the wallets of large donors or outside groups to win elections. A blue wave is beginning to swell, powered largely by small-dollar donors at the grassroots level who are banding together and prepared to fight in every part of the country come midterms. As Democrats in Pennsylvania and across the country take victory laps, let’s not forget where the real power in campaigns lies.
Erin Hill is the executive director of ActBlue, an online fundraising platform for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations, and charities.