Voters look at headlines, one-liners and policy positions. Political pros follow the money.
That’s why the biggest news of the campaign season, at least in the eyes of political pros, is WinRed, the belated Republican response to the highly successful ActBlue online fundraising platform.
ActBlue launched in 2004 and claims on its website to have raised more than $3.5 billion for Democratic candidates. In the 2018 midterm elections, ActBlue helped Democratic House and Senate candidate outraise their Republican counterparts by more than two to one because of tens of thousands small contributions.
WinRed, which is backed by the Trump re-election campaign, congressional leaders and top GOP committees, was launched in June and is a partnership between a nonprofit clearinghouse of Republican donors and a for-profit payment-processing firm.
In the last decade, there have been several unsuccessful GOP attempts to replicate WinRed. They faltered because Republican candidates tend to count mostly on large donors and were skeptical of relying on small-dollar donors. There also are competing for-profit fundraising platforms.
ActBlue operates as a nonprofit that is separate from the Democratic Party. In the 2016 presidential election, Bernie Sanders relied on the fundraising platform to generate $200 million from grassroots donors. His example caused many Democratic candidates to hop onboard in the 2018 midterm election.
NPR quoted Republican political strategist Josh Holmes in assessing ActBlue’s success. Democrats “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.”
The WinRed backers make no secret they are imitating ActBlue’s business model to counter what Trump calls the “Democratic money machine.” However, veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove warns that WinRed success will require processing fees from fundraising donations to be “reinvested in enhancements, algorithms and list building, rather than big consulting fees and salaries."
With the advent of the internet, grassroots fundraising has become a viable alternative to relying on big donors and political action committees. Several 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have staked their campaigns on pledges to accept only small-donor contributions.
An analysis in 2018 of trends by FiveThirtyEight and the Center for Public Integrity show that platforms like ActBlue make it easier and more common for interstate campaign contributions. For example, the groups reported, “Since the beginning of 2017, donors in states Clinton won have given $157 million to support House and Senate candidates running in states Trump won. That’s more than five times the amount of cash flowing from Trump states to Clinton states.”