As a Democratic fundraiser, I’m starting to worry that Republicans may finally begin caring about campaign finance reform. But any legislative attempts in this area will likely be misguided regulation of online fundraising. The reason? Republicans seem convinced that Democrats are accepting contributions from “robo-donors.”
In my almost fifteen years as a Democratic fundraiser, robo-donor is a term I’d never heard before until just a few weeks ago. I credit its origination with Ohio state Rep.-elect Gary Click. Our client, Chris Liebold, ran against the Republican, and unfortunately lost. Click complained to a local reporter that Liebold received hundreds of contributions for $1.04, $1.13, or $2.08 from “out-of-state robo-donors.”
A similarly, unfounded, concern with small-dollar contributions was raised by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), which I know has other Democratic fundraisers concerned.
The Republican conspiracy playbook says that robo-donors are bots that send millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns through entities like ActBlue. As a professional fundraiser, let me reassure you: robo-donors don’t exist. If they did, we might have been able to raise more money for our client.
Now, Graham latched onto this ridiculous theory after his Democratic challenger, Jamie Harrison, raised $57 million in the third quarter. That brought Harrison’s total unitemized contributions over the course of the campaign to $45.7 million. “Where’s all this money coming from ActBlue coming from? How easy would it be to just have a bunch of prepaid credit cards?,” he wondered aloud to The Hill in October.
Now, I know it’s en vogue for GOP leaders to throw unsubstantiated theories around in public, but there’s just no truth to there being some server farm of prepaid credit cards dumping millions of dollars into progressive candidates and causes.
What’s actually going on is Democratic donors have organized and been inspired to give money. ActBlue has been one of the most powerful tools for fundraising on the Democratic side of the aisle and helped hundreds of campaigns nationwide. ActBlue lets individuals set up tandem pages which allow donors to split one contribution between multiple candidates. These tandem pages are all individual-donor driven.
The ability to create pages and distribute money equally amongst a group of candidates are a fantastic asset. Campaigns are incredibly expensive, and Democrats found a way to level the playing field by creating an army of small-dollar donors and activists that have made it easier than ever to help support a wide breadth of candidates running nationwide.
For example, one tandem page would allow a donor to give $50 split up equally to the 34 Democratic nominees for Senate in 2020, and each would receive a contribution of $1.47.
While you might think, what’s a campaign going to do with a $1.47? I believe contributions like those produce a great opportunity, as the first donation to get is the hardest.
A good finance team will begin to cultivate a relationship with those new donors and begin migrating them up to higher giving levels. In many cases, a large donor who can give $500 may make a small contribution when splitting a dozen ways. That same donor can and might provide more if the campaign makes a compelling case for more support.
After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, millions of Democratic donors were taken aback by the craven politics being played by lawmakers like Graham. That’s what set off a fundraising boom for candidates nationwide, not robo-donors.
There’s no grand conspiracy or an army of robo-donors chipping in $1.04 at a time. In reality, it’s just an organized effort by individuals who genuinely care about our country and want to support Democratic and progressive candidates.
Nick Daggers is a co-founding partner of the 1833 Group, a Chicago-based Democratic political consulting firm focusing on fundraising. He has over fifteen years of fundraising experience working for candidates running from local office to the U.S. Senate.