The entertainment industry has for the past few years been grappling with the notion of peak TV. It’s the idea that Hollywood is producing too many shows — scripted series reached an all-time high in 2017 at some 500 — and there simply isn’t enough audience and ad revenue to sustain them all.
The campaign industry, or at least the Democratic side of it, now finds itself struggling with a similar quandary. Will the playing field be so large in 2018 that precious resources could funnel away from races that need them most?
It has some on the left worried about the potential embarrassment of unpolished, newbie candidates. But for many veteran strategists, there’s a more practical concern: the worry that there simply aren’t enough resources to go around, particularly on the fundraising side.
Consider this: By last October, 455 Democratic challengers had filed to run for the House, with 145 having raised $100,000.
By the start of this year, 211 Democratic campaigns had raised more than $100,000, according to figures from ActBlue, a fundraising platform. By comparison, in 2015, there were 74 campaigns that hit that milestone midway through that midterm cycle.
Those unconcerned by this surge of candidate enthusiasm say that Democratic donors will be there to support these campaigns down the stretch.
“We’re seeing lots of new bodies come in the door,” said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue. “If anything we are seeing our community grow.”
But will it grow fast enough? The Center for Responsive Politics has, as of Jan. 28, GOP House candidates with a collective cash-on-hand total of some $3.5 million more than their Democratic rivals. At the same time, there are 212 more House candidates running on the D side.
Now, other statistics will give uneven comfort to non-peak theory Democrats. For instance, the 2014 midterms saw a record number of donations being given at $3.77 billion, but that money came from the fewest donors since 1990.
For her part, Hill remains unconcerned. “I just don’t see a finite pool of resources.”
She countered one argument the peak campaigners make, which is that lightening rod candidates suck money and attention away from other candidates who need it. After all, Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff raised and spent almost $30 million on his way to losing the 6th district House special election in June.
“It didn’t stop small donors from being a force in Virginia,” Hill noted. In the Commonwealth, Democrats maintained the governorship while flipping at least 15 GOP-held Delegate seats and quadrupling small donations to Democratic candidates.
But in 2018, the fight for those donations isn’t just between the off-year down-ballot races and the random specials taking place. In fact, it isn’t just about the House and Senate seats up for grabs. There are 13 governor’s races targeted in states President Obama won. Then there’s also competitive primaries to consider.
Adriel Hampton, a consultant who works with non-incumbent, progressive candidates, is one of those practitioners concerned about peak campaigns.
In California, he argues, the donor base is getting tapped out thanks to solicitations from a dozen or more candidates targeting the same lists. That means candidates are going to have to get used to hearing “no,” and managers and consultants will have smaller budgets to maneuver their clients through the top-two primaries.
“That does make it very difficult for campaigns to run the kind of campaigns they’d run if they had a bigger budget,” he said.
“It is a time of unprecedented political activity on the left, so there are some positive things there. It is much easier to grab on to people and hold onto them if you campaign efficiently and in an engaging way,” said Hampton. “But there is a finite amount of energy. If you do have a volunteer, you have to be sharp enough to keep them engaged.”
He notes that many progressive candidates are trying to replicate Bernie Sanders’ success, but that could be where there’s the most overlap between email lists, donors and activists.
“You can’t rely on a Sanders effect,” Hampton said. “Even if endorses you, he’s endorsing dozens of people. You can’t take it for granted.”
Ken Christensen, a DC-based fundraising consultant, echoed Hampton’s advice.
“Make sure you don’t treat the donors like ATMs,” he said. “Then you’ll build a really good list.”