By Eric Lach
In the past few years, like millions of other Americans, Catherine Boyan, who goes by Kitty, has made political donations to Democrats with the help of an account on ActBlue, the progressive online donation processor. Boyan grew up in a political family in Baltimore, Maryland. In the nineteen-sixties, at the University of Chicago, Boyan marched against the Vietnam War. She taught elementary school and married a political scientist who taught for many years at Penn State and in the University of Maryland system. But Boyan, who is now seventy-four, retired, and living in Burlington, Vermont, has made more donations than most—more than four thousand of them during the midterm elections alone. All but one of those donations were in amounts of less than two hundred dollars—small donations, by definition. But they added up to tens of thousands of dollars. “Oh, God, I can’t help it,” she said recently, talking on the phone. “I’m so upset, and I can’t stand Trump. I want to help all these people opposing him.”
When she was twenty-two, she was in a car crash that left her paralyzed on her left side, and she still walks with the help of a cane. “Part of the reason that I give is that I can’t do a lot else,” she said. “I can’t go door to door like I used to.” Donald Trump’s election, though, was when she got “turned on and angry.” In 2018, she made contributions to Claire McCaskill, Beto O’Rourke, John Lewis, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Jon Ossoff, the Congressional Black Caucus pac, Kamala Harris, and the Committee for Hispanic Causes-bold pac, among other candidates and groups. “I look at my credit-card bill and it freaks me out,” she said. “Half of it is going to politics.” I asked Boyan to describe how being a political donor made her feel. “It’s like I’m part of a team,” she said. “I’m rooting for these people to win, because we really want to unseat a person who is totally out of line, illegal, and everything else.”
The 2020 Democratic Presidential field is more reliant on small donors than any in history. One recent analysis showed that more than half the money—some forty million dollars—raised by fourteen candidates active for the entire first quarter of this year came from donors who gave two hundred dollars or less. At the same stage of the 2016 cycle, donors who gave two hundred dollars or less accounted for under a third of Democratic fund-raising. Attracting large numbers of donors is not just a progressive purity test; it is a formal threshold for qualifying for the Democratic Party’s official debates, which begin this month. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, has sworn off making calls and holding meetings with high-dollar donors of any kind. On the last day of May, an e-mail from the campaign of Joe Biden, who is actively courting wealthy donors, declared, “We’re not looking at polls, Eric”—these things address you by name—“We need to have a strong grassroots donor base behind us, that’s the number that matters most to us.” The links, if you clicked them, would take you to a page managed by ActBlue, which estimates that online fund-raising will total in the billions of dollars this cycle. Much of that total will come from e-mails asking if you can spare a dollar. “I’m inundated with e-mails,” Boyan said. “They’re swamping me.”
It wasn’t always this way. In 1984, Ronald Reagan ran for reëlection without holding a single fund-raiser. Public financing of Presidential campaigns—one of the most remarkable reforms passed in the wake of Watergate—was the norm in primaries and general elections from 1976 to 1996. (During those six cycles, incidentally, challengers beat incumbents three times.) But the system broke down. So-called soft money—donations given to political parties rather than to candidates, and not subject to the same strict limits—crept in during the nineteen-nineties, and the price tag of Presidential campaigns began to rise. In 2000, George W. Bush opted out of public financing in the primaries and cleared the field on the strength of a big fund-raising blitz, using a network of “rangers” and “pioneers” to bundle contributions and amass his vaunted “war chest.” Four years later, Howard Dean proved that the Internet could bring in big money, too, attracting hundreds of thousands of donations online. In 2008, Barack Obama went all in on both bundlers and online donations, becoming the first major-party candidate since Watergate to forgo public financing in a general election. “We have created a parallel public-financing system where the American people decide if they want to support a campaign,” Obama told a group of donors in the spring of that year. “They can get on the Internet and finance it.”
What Obama’s vision didn’t anticipate was the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which signalled the arrival of the modern era of unlimited campaign spending. Very rich people, notably conservatives such as David and Charles Koch and Sheldon Adelson, took full advantage of the new rules, or lack of rules—giving in unprecedented amounts, single-handedly keeping pet candidates viable and relevant, organizing coalitions of the mega-wealthy, and funding super pacs and dark-money groups that swung elections and public opinion. To believe that small donors could check these developments was like putting one’s faith in a return to public financing—a dream for reformers and idealists, but not a practical reality for modern campaigns. In 2012, the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. published a report calling on the federal government to match small donations five-to-one, as a counterweight to the rise of super pacs and dark money, and as an incentive for regular people to participate in the process. That same year, Obama ran for reëlection with the help of a super pac, Priorities USA Action, that sought and received seven-figure donations from wealthy supporters.
A four-to-one match for small donations was included as part of House Resolution 1, the government-reform package that House Democrats put forward as their first order of business in the majority this year, but federal matching funds remain a reformer’s dream. Congress hasn’t passed a significant campaign-finance reform bill since a 2002 measure, sponsored by Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold, that banned soft money. In the past few elections, small-donor giving has exploded online anyway. ActBlue, which has consolidated the market and become the Paypal of the left, is either the chicken or the egg of this story. In 2004, its first year in existence, ActBlue processed less than a million dollars in donations to candidates and groups. In 2014, it processed three hundred and thirty-four million dollars. In 2016, the number rose to seven hundred and eighty-one million. In the Democratic primaries that year, Bernie Sanders, who didn’t bother to hire a finance director or hold in-person fund-raisers, used ActBlue’s tools on his way to bringing in more than two hundred million dollars. The average size of a donation to his campaign—twenty-seven dollars—became more than a source of fund-raising. It became a campaign rallying cry.
The 2018 midterms saw ActBlue hit new milestones again: it processed $1.6 billion in donations from some five million people, at an average contribution size of forty dollars. House and Senate candidates, who historically turned to lobbyists and pacs for donations, saw a flood of small-donor money. ActBlue processed more than half the money that went to Democratic candidates for federal office in 2018. It was enough to make Republicans, even with their traditional advantage among wealthy donors and outside spending groups, nervous. In November, Politico reported on Republicans’ post-midterms reckoning with the state of their fund-raising. At a meeting at Republican Party headquarters in Washington, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said that the heart of the problem is ActBlue.
The common view among campaign-finance scholars, activists, and professionals—at least among those who support Democrats—is that the online-donor revolution is a positive for democracy. Broader civic participation is good. Politicians should feel beholden to the largest number of possible donors. And anything is better than a world where billionaires are the only donors who matter. Yet many of those same people also agree that the system remains broken. Some fear that small donors, unaided, aren’t enough to counteract the power of big donors or dark-money groups. (In his second bid for the Presidency, Sanders has hired a fund-raising director and has started holding what his campaign is calling “grassroots fund-raisers.”) And what kind of system is this, where people with some extra cash are asked to pony up, to prevent people with lots of extra cash from taking over completely?
ActBlue’s main offices are in Somerville, Massachusetts, where Boston’s urban core starts to thin out into its suburbs. The organization counts about a hundred staff members, with lawyers, developers, analysts, and customer-service specialists among them. Any Democratic candidate who is properly registered as such can use its tools. Fifteen thousand candidates and groups did so in 2018. The group takes a 3.95-per-cent transaction fee on each contribution—a credit-card processing fee, the group says—and lives off small-dollar “tips” from donors. (Kitty Boyan has given the group many tips. “They’re going to all the trouble,” she said. “I have to encourage them sometimes.”) ActBlue doesn’t take sides in primaries, and it exists in a kind of quasi-association with the Democratic Party. It evangelizes only for small donors. “The small donors were there first. They were at the beginning of the resistance,” Erin Hill, the group’s executive director, told me in a recent interview. “They’re driving where the Party is going. They’re driving where the movement is going, in real time.”
Federal election laws do not require political campaigns to report information about donations smaller than two hundred dollars. But ActBlue, because it is not a campaign, has to collect and report information about all its donors to the Federal Election Commission. It also closely monitors donor behavior, to find more ways to encourage more donations. It allows people to save their credit-card information in an ActBlue account; it allows people to set up recurring payments to politicians; and it has turned much of its attention to optimizing the experience of giving on a smartphone. And, while demographics have changed over time—sixty per cent of ActBlue donors in 2018 were women, compared to fifty-two per cent four years earlier, for instance—the total amount of money coming in has only gone up. “When folks used to talk about traditional fund-raising and high-dollar fund-raising, you’d often hear people talk about it being like a zero-sum game,” Hill said. “But we’re talking about small-dollar donations. That calculus doesn’t hold anymore.”
There are some who fear that online fund-raising will encourage extremism—that only the most bombastic candidates will get showered in small-donor dollars. Trump’s status as the top recipient of small donations in history bolsters that argument. But the 2018 numbers complicate it. According to the campaign finance Web site Open Secrets, the top ActBlue recipients at the federal level this past cycle—Doug Jones, Heidi Heitkamp, O’Rourke, Ossoff, and McCaskill—were all essentially moderates running in tough races, not extremists. The top over-all recipient of funding through ActBlue was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In other words, Democrats on ActBlue behave like straightforward partisans—fans supporting their teams, and out to win. But, ultimately, politicians don’t need fans; they need constituents. Of the top five ActBlue federal candidates, only Jones, in Alabama’s special senate election, pulled out a victory. “If you were concerned about an undue influence by large donors, then the ActBlue story is an unalloyed good for the system,” Michael J. Malbin, a suny-Albany professor and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, told me. “But it does have this other side. It fits in with and contributes to a nationalization of an already polarized politics.”
Among the top recipients of ActBlue donations in 2018 was a group called the Progressive Turnout Project. Founded in 2015 by a couple of Illinois political veterans, its initial goal was to raise fifty thousand dollars to help fund door-knocking efforts in the state’s Tenth Congressional District. So much money came in so fast that the group quickly decided to expand nationally. By the end of the 2016 cycle, the Progressive Turnout Project had raised more than five million dollars. By the end of the 2018 cycle, it had raised nearly another twenty-four million to support candidates in House and Senate races, including Katie Porter, in California; Sherrod Brown, in Ohio; and Lizzie Fletcher, in Texas. Alex Morgan, the group’s executive director, told me that he believes Democrats were looking for new ways to give, and were responding to major events of the Trump era by opening their wallets. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, the group raised twenty-one thousand dollars. On the day Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, it raised a hundred thousand. “We were messaging around the fact that we put staff on the ground,” Morgan said. “We mobilize Democratic voters.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination occasioned a multimillion-dollar battle by dark-money groups, and ActBlue has allowed regular people to enter that fray. And yet, what if none of it were possible, or necessary? Another group among the top ActBlue recipients is End Citizens United pac, which hopes to “end Big Money in politics and fix our rigged political system by electing campaign finance reform champions, passing state ballot measures, and elevating this issue in the national conversation.” I had never heard of them before. But Boyan had. “I’m furious at the Citizens United court case,” she told me. “So I give money to End Citizens United.”
In 2018, End Citizens United, which is based in Washington, D.C., raised thirty-two million dollars through ActBlue and forty-four million dollars over all. Its average donation was fourteen dollars. Some of that money was passed through to candidates that End Citizens United had endorsed. Some was spent on television ads. “Really, the only way to try and push back on the unbelievable amount of money that people are allowed to contribute to super pacs or spend on dark money is if millions of people band together and say, ‘This is not the kind of politics we want. We want leaders who are going to be accountable to us,’ ” Patrick Burgwinkle, the group’s communications director, told me. The group has been somewhat surprised at its success raising money, but not wholly surprised. “Getting money out of politics,” Burgwinkle said, “is often a very powerful grassroots fund-raising message.”