Political strategists on both sides have been debating the ethical takeaways for campaigns since news broke about the Trump campaign’s deceptive online fundraising practices. But it’s not enough to just debate them behind closed doors. With the Department of Justice cracking down on “material misrepresentation” in email fundraising, it’s time we all take this issue seriously.
Trump’s campaign took these practices to a new low last year, which forced them to refund more than 10 percent of the money they raised online — around $122 million. At some points in 2020, 1-3 percent of all credit card complaints were related to Trump campaign donations. That’s an alarmingly high rate given the volume of credit card transactions in the United States.
Although many political operatives are dunking on the Trump campaign on Twitter, it’s not hard to find evidence of others fundamentally using the same scare tactics and scams — unfazed by the explosive investigation.
Democratic strategists like myself should make sure our house is in order before casting stones, as there are examples within our own party of questionable fundraising tactics, misleading “final notice” solicitation, de-branded campaign emails defrauding our supporters, consultants creating scam PACs to funnel donations to their consulting firms, and large party committees still pre-checking monthly recurring donations through ActBlue with no disclaimer.
DOJ’s recent charge against a pro-Trump PAC highlighted a fake 5X donation match, another abusive practice that’s rampant in the industry.
Digital fundraising without ethics and character is theft, plain and simple. We shouldn’t be scamming people with deceptive tactics or scaring seniors into unknowingly giving away their rent and grocery money to political campaigns — especially in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession.
Instead, we should use these platforms as a way to elevate the conversation we’re having with the American people using storytelling to build meaningful connections between candidates, causes, and people’s own lives.
Looking at the top ActBlue campaigns from 2020, the good news is that many successful political fundraising programs have done this very well, like Joe Biden’s record-breaking digital fundraising program against Trump himself. Moreover, John Hickenlooper’s Senate campaign — which my agency worked on — leaned heavily into narrative-based storytelling to build a meaningful connection with supporters, helping us raise tens of millions of dollars from grassroots donors.
When we treat our supporters deceptively and use them like human ATMs, they’re less likely to vote, volunteer, and stay in the fight. For Democrats riding high after reclaiming the White House and squeezing out a narrow victory in the Senate, history tells us that protecting our majorities in 2022 will be challenging, so we need our supporters to stay in the fight. Without Trump as an easy villain to motivate donors online, we can’t afford to abandon our ethics and alienate our voters if we want to win these elections.
Let’s not forget that there are vocal opponents on the right, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are eager to take down ActBlue, the platform central to Democrats’ fundraising success in recent cycles.
Similar to the political reckoning we saw in 2009 after Obama’s victory when Republicans targeted ACORN or right-wing legislators targeting voting rights in states like Georgia, we can’t afford to let our guard down or provide an opening for whataboutism on unethical fundraising tactics.
Now is the time for digital practitioners and our stakeholders to pause, reflect and rethink the way we are structuring digital fundraising programs and how we’re treating our supporters for the long-term. Focusing only on winning the election right in front of us is short-sighted. Instead, we need to run our campaigns in a way that builds sustainable programs for the future rather than operating like a collection of startups selling off to hedge funds as quickly as possible.
As we saw with the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal five years ago, a toxic culture driven by unrealistic expectations for employees can lead to playing too fast and loose with ethical standards.
Digital strategists are increasingly expected to raise obscene, unreasonable amounts of money on political campaigns or risk being fired or minimized at the decision table. Campaign stakeholders — party leaders, consultants, etc. — need to set more realistic fundraising goals based on actual data, not lofty projections, temper their strategy with ethics and a supporter-first mentality. And they should be honest with people no matter what.
While nothing about the Trump campaign scamming their own supporters should be a surprise to those paying attention, their deceptive fundraising scheme is the logical outcome of the current political environment. Let’s use this egregious example as a teachable moment for all of us working on campaigns.
None of us got into this business to scam seniors out of their money. Most of us got into politics because we have deeply held values and principles about where we want this country to go and the kind of dignity people deserve. We need to remember that and take a good, hard look at how we’re raising money online.
Mike Nellis is the Founder and CEO of Authentic. He has nearly two decades of experience developing digital fundraising and organizing programs for some of the largest and most successful Democratic and progressive campaigns. He was a Senior Advisor on Kamala Harris’ historic presidential campaign. In 2020, Mike’s team played a vital role in electing Joe Biden President and flipping the U.S. Senate.