How The Internet Has Changed The Way Politicians Raise Campaign Funds

Jul 1, 2019
Originally published on July 1, 2019 8:14 pm
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The Republican Party has launched a new digital tool to make it easy for donors to contribute money online. The fundraising platform is called WinRed, which sounds kind of like ActBlue, the platform that has been hoovering up billions of dollars for Democrats since 2004. NPR's Peter Overby and the Center for Public Integrity's Carrie Levine looked into what took Republicans so long. Here's Peter's story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: More and more, political fundraising depends on moments - a TV ad, a speech, something that ignites the passions of the party faithful and makes them grab a credit card. Republicans had one of those moments last September. In the firestorm of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham turned his anger toward Democratic senators.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: God, I hate to say it 'cause these have been my friends. But let me tell you when it comes to this, you're looking for a fair process, you came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend.

JOSH HOLMES: If he would have had WinRed access at that time, I can't imagine he'd raise a penny less than $10 million.

OVERBY: Josh Holmes is a Republican consultant.

HOLMES: It was an omnipresent speech that virtually every conservative tuned into and approved of and wanted to show their gratitude.

OVERBY: Holmes helped launch WinRed, the new Republican fundraising platform. But ActBlue is 15 years old. Last year, Democrats took back control of the House. Their congressional candidates outraised Republicans - in fact, had a 2 to 1 advantage in contributions from individuals. ActBlue said it raised more than half of that money.

Meanwhile, Republicans have failed to match ActBlue despite several attempts. One challenge has been the GOP's campaign culture, where online fundraising has been a big profit center for some consultants. David Karpf is a professor at George Washington University. He studies the Internet's impact on politics.

DAVID KARPF: Every election cycle, there is a story of how now they're getting behind an initiative to try to set up a competitor to ActBlue. They haven't done it yet, though maybe this will be the time.

OVERBY: That's because the Internet is changing the way politicians raise and spend cash. Here's Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson.

ERIC WILSON: There's been this mindset for campaign managers that you want to have the highest cash-on-hand number possible at the end of each reporting period, and you want to have the lowest burn rate.

OVERBY: That's been a GOP tradition. The big war chest would scare off opponents, and then the cash would turn into a TV blitz near Election Day.

WILSON: That math doesn't work anymore because you can reach millions of voters very quickly on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube. You just need one bio video to go viral to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

OVERBY: Until recently, fundraising has been geographically based - the home district, the home state, lobbyists in Washington. Direct mail would also go to ideological loyalists around the country. The internet changes that. Candidates can hit up any qualified donor anywhere. Wilson said the technology is there for Republicans, but candidates and advisers need to catch up.

WILSON: We can build the best technology platform in the world bar none. But if you're not growing your email list, you're not going to raise money online.

OVERBY: Online fundraising with a national base also means candidates can cooperate. ActBlue lets a donor split a contribution among several candidates, and now so does WinRed. WinRed highlights upselling, encouraging donors to add candidates or merchandise during the transaction. Josh Holmes, the consultant, said that in 2018, ActBlue even kept some Democratic candidates going when the polls showed voters abandoning them.

HOLMES: They built an ecosystem that helped everybody. They could fundraise off of each other, and they could come to a centralized platform that ultimately lifted every single boat. And Republicans just frankly didn't have it.

OVERBY: They do now. WinRed is backed by the Republican political establishment, the party's three national committees, Data Trust, the nonprofit clearinghouse for the party's voter data and, most importantly, President Trump's reelection campaign. Four years ago when Trump fans bought MAGA hats by the thousands, he showed Republicans a new way to reach small donors. Last week, Trump tweeted that WinRed will allow Republicans to, quote, "compete with the Democrats' money machine." He said it's been a priority of his. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "TRACK UNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.