ActBlue: Liberal Powerhouse
Republican leaders are afraid of ActBlue. Since the election, news articles had the following snippets:
1. “There’s nothing comparable to it in U.S. political history,” said Dave Levinthal, an editor for the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, about ActBlue. “For Democrats or Republicans.”
2. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, was among the GOP leaders and party strategists saying they desperately needed to figure out how to compete with Democrats and draw more online small-dollar donations for their candidates. “If they don’t, they won’t be around in the majority any time soon,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
3. Republicans have long acknowledged the shortcoming and spoken out about the need to fix it, to no avail. But this year’s gaping money disparity between the two parties has snapped the GOP to attention. “I think everybody acknowledges we have a helluva problem,” said Holmes. “The question is whether we can get everybody to set egos and business considerations aside to solve it. I’d certainly like to try.”
4. In Illinois, GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, who was once thought to be safe, was outpaced more than 2-to-1 from July through September, wiping out his early money advantage. Davis managed to hang on, but only barely. Something “has to be done to combat what the Democrats put together,” the three-term congressman told POLITICO. “There’s no reason why small-dollar GOP donors in Wyoming, Texas, Montana, or Florida can’t help vulnerable members in tough districts.”
5. Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), who is locked in a close race for reelection that has yet to be called, said she has had conversations with an array of House lawmakers since last week’s elections and found widespread agreement that the party needs to address its online donor problem. “They’re very concerned about being able to compete with ActBlue, and it has to be a top priority,” she said.
6. [Sheldon] Adelson and his team are disgruntled about the Republican committees’ lack of a response to ActBlue, a Democratic grassroots fundraising platform.
7. McConnell reportedly admitted at a private donor event on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that Democrats dominated their party in the online fundraising battle — and that the main obstacle was ActBlue.
ActBlue Gets a Little Too Much Credit Though…
When Bernie Sanders sends you a fundraising email, that’s his (digital/fundraising/etc.) team sending the email. It’s not a default ActBlue template.
And just in case you haven’t donated to Bernie in the past four years, this is what you see when you click on a donation link within that email:
This is an ActBlue donation page. You will see something very similar for nearly every single Democrat candidate and organization. ActBlue provides the mechanism for liberal causes to collect donations. ActBlue charges 3.95%. This is almost identical to all the Republican vendors too.
So if the Republican campaigns offer this, then what don’t they deliver? Some Republican general consultants and candidates are saying “There’s no reason why small-dollar GOP donors in Wyoming, Texas, Montana, or Florida can’t help vulnerable members in tough districts.” That’s insinuating it’s an ActBlue secret weapon. Let’s dig into that deeper.
The Supposed ActBlue Secret Weapon
ActBlue is known for having an entire directory of liberal causes. You can check that out here. This is an excellent tool for progressive organizations to help promote and raise for their candidates. It’s not a secret weapon though. Sure, some liberal organizations use it to help out other causes, but it’s another tool that’s being used by people outside of ActBlue to help raise money. That’s not the perception the media has pushed over the past year though.
The GOP has a very similar weapon named Give.GOP. I mean honestly, dig into the two, and you’ll see they’re nearly identical. Both allow you to search for causes and give to the causes you want to. Both are dead simple to use and have the same user experience.
Anedot: The Republican ActBlue
So now that we’ve covered ActBlue, there’s a solution I’ve been alluding to in this post that is available to Republicans. It’s called Anedot. Remember that tool we just talked about named Give.GOP? Guess what; it’s powered by Anedot.
Here is a quick summary of the market:
More than 125 of the roughly 250 Republican members of Congress and 43 of 50 state parties use Anedot. Look at the graphs above. Anedot dominates the Republican market nearly to the level ActBlue dominates the Democrat market. Almost all of the Republican leadership uses Anedot for their fundraising efforts. In full disclosure, we’ve used Anedot for years at the Maryland Republican Party and processed over $1 million in donations through their service.
Why Anedot Has Achieved Market Domination
One word: support. Anedot is the Chic-Fil-A or Southwest of campaign donation platforms. Most consultants and professionals who do this for a living are personally connected to the CEO of the company, and he’s incredibly responsive. Their support team fixes issues often within minutes. Anedot’s built on the ease of use of their platform, and they listen to their customer base intently. They continuously innovate and don’t add things their customers don’t need. They are an honest broker in the market that everyone has grown to trust. And, frankly, they aren’t exclusive to Republicans — nor do they need to be. They are a payment service provider just like Stripe or PayPal.
What’s the Hold Up Then?
Frankly, personal relationships. The dirty secret of business in politics is it’s all built on personal relationships. Many of these people are very capable, and this is not a stab at their capabilities. It’s merely an explanation of how we got here.
Look at the folks not using Anedot, and you’ll find 70% of them use something owned by consultants. The RNC uses a different platform than Anedot because their former Head of Digital started a company and secured a contract for that company while still employed by RNC. This was widely reported on in 2017. Other significant vendors in Republican politics also all have some level of ownership/interest in the company.
The NRSC uses a platform that is part-owned by the brother of their digital director. The NRCC uses the same platform as NRSC, and their Deputy Digital Director is a former employee of that platform.
Again, this is not hating on those platforms or saying they’re inferior products. They perform many of the same capabilities as Anedot, and all are incredibly similar. Anedot has massive market share though, and the truth is the only reason Anedot doesn’t have the rest of the market is because of many of these existing relationships.
Note, I have no personal business interest in Anedot, and we are technology agnostic with the MDGOP. We use whatever technology we feel best meets our need. This article is not suggesting that the RNC, NRSC, and NRCC have to throw Revv or the other companies out of business. More simply, Republicans need to act like a rising tide lifts all boats — specialize and work together.
Republicans DO NOT have an ActBlue problem as many have said in the press. That viewpoint is being portrayed by many who are more frightened by the truth: Democrats had more enthusiasm for every candidate not named Donald Trump. President Trump is a unique figure who excites the Republican base, and that helps the national Republican organizations raise record amounts of money. Other Republican organizations and candidates did not have the same base of support though.
Why did Democrats Crush Republicans In Fundraising Then?
Democrats crushed Republicans in fundraising for the same reason they beat them in candidate recruitment and grassroots activity. It’s the same reason Republicans defeated Democrats in 2010 in these departments. Democrats were motivated to act against the President from the opposing party. That’s the primary reason, and it cannot be avoided.
That does not mean the consulting class is off the hook. Besides President Donald Trump and the RNC, most campaigns and candidates had a terrible online list building and fundraising operation. Very few resources were put into building lists via Facebook and Google advertising, display advertising, or P2P texting.
Email list sizes were puny for Republican campaigns compared to Democrat because resources weren’t put in and the digital team was rarely given a seat at the “big boy” table. Building cell phone lists is still in its infancy for many. Every single organization and candidate should be building opt-in cell phone lists for the inevitable day when the FCC creates more stringent regulations on P2P texting. They aren’t doing it though. Look at the number of candidates who don’t prominently ask for cell phone numbers in their opt-in forms. It’s embarrassing. Cell phone opt-ins may be a higher priority over texting soon due to their higher open and click-through rates.
The RNC and Donald Trump are worlds ahead of everyone else on the Republican side when it comes to list building and engagement — but let’s be honest, it’s not because of their donation platform. President Trump could say “no more digital donations,” and he’d get millions of paper checks.
How do Republicans Improve for the Future?
Stop Thinking of “Digital” as a Single Vertical
“Digital” IS NOT A SINGLE VERTICAL! Digital fundraising ≠ digital advertising/media.
Companies like Strategic Partners and Media, Harris Media, Acquire Digital, Majority Strategies, and OnMessage focus primarily on media (including digital media). They push messaging related to turnout, persuasion, etc. They are your modern day television companies that have adapted to an online world.
Digital is just another medium. Content needs to be crafted specifically for the problem it’s trying to solve. Digital media campaigns should be coordinated with television advertisements and political direct mail. Online fundraising should be coordinated with major donor programs and direct mail fundraising. The idea that your fundraising experts are also your messaging experts is far-fetched. More commonly, these companies should be working with others in the industry to focus on their specialization. That way, the media vendors have more to spend on media and the good digital fundraising vendors don’t have to get creative to meet their business needs.
Invest in Talent
Campaigns and Elections came out with an article in the past month titled: “The Next Big Digital Battle: Finding Staff.”
The author is correct when they say we have a severe lack of talent in the area of digital. This is not just a Republican problem, but Democrats too. The entire space does not have enough talent to fill the need and the vacuum is being filled by people without expertise in digital.
There’s no investment in digital talent right now, and there are opportunities to do so. This is self-serving, but through the University of Florida, we have built a fully online Master’s in Political Communications Program that’s focused purely in digital in politics. The program is designed to be completed by full-time working professionals in two years. Best yet, it only costs $25,000 and is part of the top-rated Mass Communications program and top-50 university in the country.
Our program means serious business. Our Advisory Council includes senior executives of many companies and organizations that have already been mentioned. Our classes are taught by real professionals including employees of Campaign Inbox, NationBuilder, SEIU Florida, Buying Time Media, and Impact Politics. Students are receiving knowledge from those practicing in the field, so our curriculum is updated yearly to adjust to the market trends. Students can also audit any classes in another program if they want to learn in a different area.
Aside from our University of Florida program, both the DNC and RNC could invest in small training programs for technologically savvy field staff looking to get into the field. They already have Campaign Management College, Finance College, and Data College. Why not digital too? This wouldn’t be nearly as intense as our Master’s but would pay dividends to provide some knowledge at least.
The truth is that we’re our own worst enemy. If we want to get better, we need to invest in people, specialize, and focus on adding value rather than protecting fiefdoms. The cost is too high for right-leaning organizations to continue allowing people to skim off the industry. There’s plenty of revenue to go around for those who add value.
2020 is coming upon us quickly. If you aren’t list building and raising money in 2019, you’re already losing.
Patrick O’Keefe is the Program Director and Chairman of the Advisory Council for the Master’s in Political Communication at the University of Florida; the first fully online program in the country focused exclusively on “digital in politics.”
Patrick is also the Executive Director for the Maryland Republican Party, leading state party operations.
He was previously the Chief of Staff for Maryland State Delegate Christian Miele and the Head of Growth for the education-technology start-up Clutch Prep.
If you want to partner on a project, feel free to email at patrick.okeefe3 [at] gmail.com