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To help Trump raise even more millions in 2020, the GOP is copying Democratic fundraising tools

In the past, small donations have barely mattered in most Republican campaigns. But is a new fundraising tool, mirrored on a Democratic equivalent, about to change the game?

To help Trump raise even more millions in 2020, the GOP is copying Democratic fundraising tools
[Photos: oatintro/iStock; Martin Holverda/iStock]

It took a while to come up with a good name for the GOP’s new fundraising vehicle, one that would effectively match the grassroots small-donor energy tapped by the other side in 2018. “Patriot Pass” was the original choice–until Robert Kraft fretted that it sounded too similar to his NFL team. Then, “ActRed,” a direct replica of the Democratic organization it was mimicking, was considered—until marketer-in-chief President Trump shot it down, arguing that Republicans win. So, this summer, “WinRed” was born.

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WinRed fills a gap in the GOP’s fundraising strategy. It’s an intermediary through which “small donors” can contribute to their favorite candidates up and down the ballot, with the simple touch of a button not unlike buying stuff on Amazon with 1-Click. But this is no groundbreaking invention. The Democrats’ version, ActBlue, has existed since 2004 and has been instrumental in grassroots fundraising, particularly for formerly fringe candidates like Bernie Sanders, but all across the board for more mainstream politicians, too. More than 10,000 campaigns and organizations have raised money on ActBlue so far this year.

So, what’s taken the Republicans so long–15 years–to develop their answer?

“Democrats and Republicans are like Darwin’s finches,” says Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist who was digital director for Marco Rubio’s 2016 Senate run. “We’ve evolved on separate islands to deal with separate problems.” When considering the evolution of digital fundraising, he points to two issues: strategy and culture.

Strategically, parties must appeal to their demographically distinct donor bases. Republican voters have traditionally skewed older and have been more comfortable donating via mail and phone than online, Wilson says, meaning the demand wasn’t particularly high for a digital alternative.

More to the point, the Republican base traditionally comprises big businesses with inordinate financial resources, meaning there’s little need for the relative peanuts offered by small donations, typically defined as $200 or less, which would be embarrassingly dwarfed by the truckloads dumped onto elections by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson (more than $100 million to the GOP in 2018) and company.

“If you have the Koch Brothers, why would you feel the need to give $3 to a candidate if they already have it?” asks Dan Scarvalone, senior director of research and data at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic strategy agency.

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But it’s also a question of ideology. “It’s not just about building a series of pipes and tubes and code that helps connect people,” Scarvalone says. “It’s about culture.” He argues that grassroots funding aligns more with Democratic philosophy. “Democrats believe in elections that are financed by the people, and not just the 1%.”

WinRed is far from the Republicans’ first product in the small-donor space, so it’s not through lack of trying. There have been numerous iterations with each cycle, especially in the lead-up to the 2008 election, which spawned SlateCard, Rightroots, and Big Red Tent. (A visit to any of these sites now leads to sad error messages or offers to purchase the domains.)

This points to another cultural difference: economic ethos. While ActBlue emerged as a nonprofit that provided a welcoming infrastructure for all the fragments of the Democratic Party, the Republican startups were for-profits that competed with each other in all-American, capitalistic fashion.

“It’s the free market of ideas, right? There should be competition in this space,” says Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor at UNC who studies digital politics, of the conservative mindset. “It shouldn’t be something that’s driven in a top-down sort of way.”

In true embrace of that economic ideal, Wilson, the Republican strategist, believes that rivalry has given WinRed the upper hand, thanks to years of multiple providers competing on tech features such as integration with merchandise. Purchasing a MAGA hat will send your donation through WinRed, to the Trump campaign. But when you go to Mitch McConnell’s website to buy one of the infamous “Cocaine Mitch” t-shirts (the front a silhouette of McConnell behind a puff of powder; the back simply reading “Cartel Member”), you’ll find it’s powered by Victory Passport, yet another rival in the space, built by Mitt Romney’s former digital director. The competition is alive and well.

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A carbon copy

Before ActBlue, there was similarly an array of platforms on the Democratic side, but when John Kerry lost in 2004, the party started to coalesce around a single tool, built by developers in the suburban city of Somerville, Massachusetts. Allowing Howard Dean to put more to his name than just a scream, the consolidation was energized by the then-DNC chair, partly as a way of allowing lesser-known candidates on the left wing of the party to get a piece of the action. State parties merged into a joint data-sharing system, and ActBlue ruled the roost.

ActBlue is a “conduit PAC”: that’s a political action committee that accepts donations earmarked for candidates, then transfers the funds to those campaigns. It’s a digital version of the human “small-dollar bundlers” who would take on the task of collecting and distributing funds. (Hillary’s bundlers were called HillRaisers; Rudy Giuliani’s were coined All-American Sluggers.) Crucially, ActBlue is independent and easy to use, meaning registered users can give to several different candidates in a few clicks. Unlike individuals, who are limited to donating $2,800 per candidate, the PAC can send unlimited money to campaigns, and it takes on the burden of tedious FEC paperwork.

The off-the-shelf nature of the technology means it’s cheap to set up, especially for fringe candidates. “It’s fueled a lot of insurgent campaigns,” says Kreiss, mentioning the Sanders campaign in 2016, which are typically “facing a large uphill battle for institutional resources.” There are notable exceptions—President Obama and Secretary Clinton used their own systems for their presidential runs—but in the 2018 midterms, when ActBlue helped raise $1.6 billion for Democrats, voters donated to candidates across the blue spectrum, from centrist Pennsylvania candidate Conor Lamb to New York’s firebrand progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In 2020, presidential candidates from all wings are using ActBlue, with Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden all making appearances on FEC reports. Candidates can take advantage of surges in real time. If Kamala Harris experiences a bump, like she did after her viral moment taking down Joe Biden in the first round of debates, newfound supporters could donate to her then and there.

“We’re focused on giving small-dollar donors the best platform possible to make millions of small-dollar contributions to Democrats and progressive organizations this cycle,” says Erin Hill, ActBlue’s executive director.

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The flattery is evident in the fact that WinRed is a carbon copy of ActBlue. That’s from the startlingly honest words of WinRed’s founder, Gerrit Lansing. “We copied a lot of stuff they do,” he told the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. Lansing, former chief digital officer for the RNC and the White House, also founded Revv, a fundraising platform on which WinRed now operates. (And in turn, that runs on Stripe, the payment-processing platform.)

Also integrated is Data Trust, a platform that collects and stores Republican donor data. The data belongs to the Republican Party, but Data Trust makes it easier to share and circulate that information. According to its Crunchbase profile, Data Trust maintains records of 260 million Americans, updated daily. Lansing declined to speak to Fast Company, and Data Trust’s board chairman, Henry Barbour, who’s heavily involved in Mississippi politics, could not be reached.

The founders and the party are confident that they’ve engineered a tool that’ll finally stick to the wall. What’s so different this time around? The answer, it seems, is sitting in the Oval Office.

Ignited by victory, not loss

President Trump’s job rating is sky high among Republicans; an August poll suggested 84% of Republicans approve of his performance. As perverse as it may sound to critics, he’s a unifying figure who’s broadened the party’s base. What’s more, he’s popular with grassroots folks, who arguably propelled him into power during his populist 2016 campaign. Emerging anew with the Tea Party, populist Republicanism has made a comeback, and Trump tapped into that gap.

What’s more, the timing is right. ActBlue found success at a moment where all the right elements converged. “ActBlue is part of broader shifts in technology, political culture, American culture, and consumer culture,” Kreiss says, and it all came together when Democrats were uniting after Kerry’s loss to Bush.

Now, Republicans are experiencing a parallel moment but ignited by victory, not loss. For the Democrats, it was being out of power and having the drive to win back both houses of Congress in 2006 that fueled ActBlue. Today, WinRed is a product of the party in power. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this one has a little more traction,” Kreiss says, “because it’s being launched by a popular sitting president within the party, with what I think will be a very fired-up base in 2020.”

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To be sure, Trump has played a huge role in WinRed. A master of branding, he played a part in naming the PAC, and on June 24, tweeted about the launch. Donations to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee are now powered by WinRed. Within a week of launching, WinRed had transferred more than $184,000 to national and state candidates, including $83,000 for Trump, $26,000 for McConnell, and hefty sums for Trump-supporting candidates like Kevin McCarthy and John Cornyn. (WinRed has only publicly filed reports for that week, ending June 30, which is also the end of the quarter. But according to a source, the PAC raised $4 million in the last four days of July, and it aims to reach $35 million by the year’s end, The Daily Beast reported.)

The president’s heavy-handedness raises the question of whether Trump-critical Republicans will fare well–or even be allowed to participate–on WinRed. While ActBlue has proven its independence from the DNC, WinRed so far appears under tight control by RNC and White House insiders.

“The Republican Party now gets defined through one’s fealty to Trump, in a way that’s very new,” says David Karpf, associate professor at George Washington University (who’s also incidentally the star of the Bret Stephens bedbug soap opera). “It’s not like WinRed is going to allow some upstart Trump critic to gain traction in their primary campaign.”

The stifling chokehold that the RNC and Trump have over the service is becoming ever clearer in their effort to stomp out competitors this time around. The founders of Anedot, a donations platform that’s existed since 2010 (and that’s pronounced like “antidote”), found themselves challenged by the rise of WinRed. They had recently launched a separate conservative fundraising tool called Give.gop, whose funds would be processed by Anedot. The RNC sent Give.gop a cease-and-desist letter in July, Politico reported.

It’s now relaunched as Right.us, a “one-stop shop for conservative donors.” It announced August 28 on Twitter (to its paltry 82 followers): “We have reached a major milestone this week. We now have more than 1,000 committees.” Users can donate to many of the same candidates as on WinRed –including, somewhat ironically, Donald Trump.

Closing the gap or endlessly chasing?

Even if it’s likelier that it’ll stick this time, there’s no telling yet how effective WinRed will be in raising more grassroots cash as it plays catch-up to the Democrats.

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While WinRed touts its advanced tools, some experts believe that ActBlue actually has the technological upper hand–because it’s had more time to develop and optimize for on-the-go users, leading the way on mobile and one-click donations. About 7.5 million users now have ActBlue Express, the one-click expansion, and the PAC says those members are more likely to give to more than one campaign.

It also has a better price point; it takes a flat rate fee of 3.95% transaction fee per donation, however large or small. WinRed, in its current form, will take a cut of 3.8% plus an extra 30 cents per donation. Because it’s closely tied to the Trump campaign, it’s fair to ask where that money will go, though WinRed claims it’s streaming it back into improving the service.

With only seven days of FEC disclosures currently available, it will be a while before we truly know the impact, and have to rely on anecdotal evidence. WinRed is periodically announcing its new “clients” on Twitter, recently welcoming incumbents like Florida’s Marco Rubio and Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, as well as Bradley Byrne, who’s challenging Alabama’s Democratic Senator Doug Jones.

In the meantime, past numbers tell a story of how significant small-dollar donations can be, especially for Trump. In the second quarter of 2019, Trump raised a total of $68 million, and a considerable 35% of those were contributions of less than $200. While it still doesn’t touch Democrats’ proportions—Elizabeth Warren, in the same period, claimed that 67% of her donations came from small donors, equating to $12.8 million—it’s much more than a drop in the Republican infinity pool.

For Karpf, it hardly matters, financially, whether WinRed succeeds or not. “The amount of money that is going to get spent in the 2020 election is an order of magnitude larger than absurd,” he says. “If WinRed extremely succeeds, then they will have an absurd amount of money to spend. If it totally fails, they’ll still have an absurd amount of money to spend.” Big business donors will still cover Republican spending; the reason they keep coming back to this populist idea is because it’s a market opportunity—and a symbol of their embrace of an egalitarian culture.

For Scarvalone, the Democratic strategist, it all comes back to ideology. Grassroots donations are still less intrinsic within GOP DNA. “It’s like Field of Dreams: you can build the baseball field, but until they come, it doesn’t really matter,” he says. “Until Republican donors start believing that their small-dollar contributions are critical to their candidates succeeding, they’re not going to use the platform.”

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Even if successful, he’s confident it won’t touch what the left has built up for 15 years. And the lead continues to grow. ActBlue projects it’ll raise $3 billion for Democrats for the 2020 elections, which would almost quadruple its total of $781 million for the 2016 cycle.

“The advantage that Democrats have built up cycle after cycle can’t be undone with a fancy piece of technology,” Scarvalone says. “It can’t be undone by a billionaire president who has a gold toilet.”

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