Peruse fundraising tallies for Democratic congressional candidates in Minnesota and you’re likely to see one word come up over and over again: ActBlue.
The organization is listed hundreds of times on candidates’ campaign finance filings. It comes up as the source of more than $4,800 in campaign cash for Rep. Betty McCollum; $36,000 for Ilhan Omar; nearly $104,000 for Dan Feehan, $106,000 for Sen. Tina Smith and nearly $150,000 for Angie Craig. For some candidates, ActBlue accounts for 20 percent or more of money raised.
Yet what shows up on reports looking like interest group dollars is actually something different: money from a web-based platform that’s funneling an unprecedented amount of cash from individual donors to Democratic candidates this year.
Raising money on ‘the Net’
Twenty years ago, candidates running for political office had fewer options for raising the money they needed to run a credible campaign — besides holding fancy fundraisers and spending hours on the phone asking deep-pocket donors for contributions.
That started to change around 2003, when political candidates began to harness the power of the post-hamster dance, pre-Facebook Internet to reach a broader range of donors. In the 2004 presidential primaries, Howard Dean used “the Net” to outraise all of his Democratic opponents.
The same year, two twentysomething whiz kids, Matt DeBergalis and Ben Rahn, founded ActBlue, a nonprofit online platform designed to help Democratic candidates and progressive nonprofits raise money. The organization made nascent Internet fundraising easy, serving as a relatively cheap, one-stop conduit for getting money from people’s wallets into campaigns.
“Online payment companies like banks or PayPal aren’t a great solution [for campaigns],” said David Nickerson, a political science professor at Temple University who worked in analytics for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. “They’re not set up to be compliant with [Federal Election Commission] regulations.”
Collecting money online also saved campaigns time. Before, the process involved sifting through names, addresses and the like to make sure a person who cut a check was eligible to donate. But the online platform allowed donation data to be exported easily for use in campaign finance filings. “It makes what was a painstaking task for many dozens of people something that can be done by a dozen people,” Nickerson said.
Charging 4 percent on every transaction, ActBlue was also affordable for campaigns, another feature that helped its rise to prominence.
In the 2006 midterm election cycle, ActBlue raised $17 million for Democratic candidates, according to the Boston Globe and before long, it had become something of a de-facto online fundraising tool for Democrats. Today, what started as a platform for national candidates has expanded to help state and local candidates raise money, too. In fact, if you’ve donated money to a Democratic candidate through an email or campaign website this election cycle, there’s a good chance that money went through ActBlue.
Over time, the platform has added features to make it even easier for politicians to raise money: It helps candidates test the effectiveness of different fundraising pitches: Should you make buttons to donate $5, $100 or $200? Or $25, $50 and $100? And it allows donors to save their information so they can donate with very few clicks after they’ve set up an account.
This election cycle, ActBlue has so far helped Democrats and progressive causes raise more than $1 billion, a record, said Caleb Cade, a spokesman for ActBlue. The organization expects to raise $1.5 billion — double its 2016 haul — by the end of the year.
An online edge?
Some say ActBlue offers a big advantage for Democrats. Cade said grassroots fundraising was one reason Democratic candidate Danny O’Connor could compete with Republican Troy Balderson in a recent Ohio special election in a congressional district that had gone for President Donald Trump by a large margin. Balderson ultimately won by a narrow margin.
There isn’t a tool quite akin to ActBlue on the Republican side. “Republicans never really built an equivalent to ActBlue, but by the time they were trying to build a competitor to ActBlue, it was obvious how much money there was to raise online,” said David Karpf, a professor who specializes in media and public affairs at the George Washington University.
One popular online fundraising platform, NationBuilder, could be said to compete with ActBlue, but it isn’t a nonprofit and works with candidates and nonprofits of all stripes. Still, Nickerson said, Republicans have no trouble raising money online. Or, obviously, winning elections, sometimes with less money in the bank than Democrats (see: 2016).
People who tout the type of fundraising made possible by platforms like ActBlue say raising money from small donors empowers ordinary people to compete with big donors.
But at a time when money from outside groups can dwarf the amount of money spent by candidates’ own campaigns, do small dollar donors even matter?
Sure, raising money from small donors online can be an advantage. But it would be a bigger advantage if Citizens United had been decided differently, reducing the amount of money in political races, Karpf said.
Crowdfunding platforms like ActBlue do enable less well-known candidates raise money quickly and early to signify to parties and prospective supporters that they’re serious. The money they help raise for campaigns also gives candidates a more direct way of controlling their message, since outside groups aren’t supposed to coordinate with campaigns.
Such platforms also help candidates raise money from people they would never reach otherwise. “It does tend to nationalize the profile of races in a way I think is interesting and fits the political moment that we’re in,” Karpf said.
Through online communities of interest, people can identify candidates who represent their values and back them financially. “Speaking as someone who lives in Washington, D.C., I get taxed without representation,” Karpf said. “I can go through ActBlue, learn about candidates I like and donate to them,” he said. And it’s easier than sending a check.