One of the best online fundraising days for Democrats this year was the day of Joe Biden’s campaign launch — but even that day, the proceeds were meager compared to the kick-off of his campaign four years ago.
That’s one of the findings of an analysis of fundraising for the first half of the year through ActBlue, the party’s primary donation processor. At the federal level, a total of $312 million was donated in the first half of 2023 — a decrease of more than $30 million compared to this point in the 2020 cycle. The platform also had 32 percent fewer donors in the second quarter of this year compared to four years prior, though overall fundraising increased slightly due to several factors, including more repeat donors and more donations to non-federal groups.
“Because small donors are a proxy for enthusiasm, if people aren’t worried about contributions dropping, they’re just not paying attention or blowing the whistle by the graveyard,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, who served as deputy campaign manager on the Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. “The impact is top-down. You can see it in the ActBlue number, you can see it from the DNC through each group. There needs to be a rapid investigation among Democrats into what is causing this enthusiasm gap.”
The lack of grassroots involvement is a warning to Biden ahead of a tough election cycle, raising questions about whether the 80-year-old incumbent is firing up the Democratic base the way he needs to win a second term. The new data also suggests that the threat of Donald Trump, once a major driver of Democratic fundraising, is no longer motivating donors as it used to.
Online fundraising has been critical to Democrats over the past few cycles, helping the party maintain control of the Senate in 2022 while strengthening Biden’s 2020 bid. The party was still much better than their Republican counterparts on the corresponding WinRed platform.
Still, a decline in activity among Democratic backers will almost certainly force candidates up and down to spend more time fundraising, rely more on major donors, or settle for less.
Some progressive groups have already laid off staff this year amid the ongoing cash crisis. Donations are also due to party committees such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, both of which saw more than a third drop in their total money raised from small dollar donors in the first half of the year compared to last year . bicycle.
According to a POLITICO analysis of data from ActBlue, the Democrats’ best fundraising days so far this year have largely been at the end of the month or the end of the quarter. Those are the days when campaigns typically send additional fundraisers.
When Biden formally launched his campaign on April 25, he received approximately 57,000 online donations from his official committee and Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising group, totaling nearly $2.9 million.
That was less than in 2019, when Biden raised more than $4 million in online donations on the day of his campaign launch. And yet, it was enough to make April 25 one of the best federal fundraising days on ActBlue this year, with only the March and June end-of-quarter deadlines driving more money raised on the platform.
A Biden campaign official noted that the current president’s campaign had different first-day goals than in 2019, when getting a large number of first-day donors was a way to stand out in a crowded primary field. The campaign has touted that about 30 percent of donors did not give to Biden in 2020. And the president’s small dollar operation has shown other positive signs as well, including less post-campaign drop-off.
In 2019, 60 percent of Biden’s first-quarter online fundraising came in his first week. But this time, first-week fundraising accounted for just 38 percent of its ActBlue fundraising through the end of June.
But the relative lack of strong fundraising days outside quarterly deadlines suggests that Democratic donors are now less driven by political events than they were in 2019, when Trump was still in office and a competitive Democratic primary led to frequent national spotlight for the party’s candidates.
In fact, the major Trump-related events this cycle — such as his court appearances in April and June — were dates when Republicans won the fundraising game. WinRed, the primary GOP fundraising platform, received more donations than ActBlue those days. That was mainly driven by Trump collecting money through that platform at those times. But other Republican groups have also used the former president’s indictment to raise money. According to WinRed data, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s best online fundraising day of the year in terms of total money raised came a few days after Trump’s second indictment.
“Villains collect money. And you have the ultimate villain in Donald Trump,” Rabin-Havt said. “But it’s the third act of that villain right now. That makes it more difficult. We are approaching the nine years of him being the main villain.
Four years ago, Democratic presidential candidates raked in millions of dollars online after strong debate performances, with fundraising also driven by other campaign events and candidates’ calls for Trump’s first impeachment. In 2021, concerns about the events of January 6 and Trump’s second impeachment drove more Democratic donations early in the cycle. And last year, that of the Supreme Court Dobbs decision about abortion led to large online donations.
Some agents in the digital fundraising space said they weren’t ready to hit the panic button just yet, noting that the summer months are often slower and the Republican primary remains unsettled. But even their optimism was colored with concern.
“We get to this point in the cycle every two years and people act like the summer slump is something they just discovered. People don’t like to donate in the summer because they’re with their families and on vacation,” said Mike Nellis, founder and CEO of Authentic, one of the top digital fundraising agencies in the lot. “That said, this is a particularly bad summer crisis. If you’re not running with particularly strong headwinds, it’s hard to raise money right now. If you’re not Adam Schiff and Jon Tester, two of my clients who are doing well right now, you’re in a bit of trouble.”
Nellis attributed some of the decline to tactical matters. The major email providers have cracked down on political spam, and social media companies have made it more difficult for campaigns to target donors, making them more reliant on email merchants who buy in bulk. Current efforts to build an effective email list were, he said, akin to “putting dynamite in a lake, hoping fish will surface.”
Biden has been running a lean campaign and the many legal challenges Trump faces, while good for the ex-president on fundraising, also mean Trump spends big.
Even with the impeachment of Trump, Republican groups have not escaped lower small dollar totals compared to the past few cycles, although WinRed’s shorter history makes it more difficult to make one-to-one comparisons.
And while there are far fewer events that seem to inspire large influxes, a few things have helped some Democratic candidates. Schiff, one of several Democrats running for Senate next year in California, received more than 56,000 donations through ActBlue over two days in June as he was condemned by House Republicans for his role in investigating Trump.
Some groups have also seen event-driven jumps, albeit on a smaller scale. The federal bill of the Democratic Party of Tennessee received more than 3,500 donations on April 7, the day after two black state legislators who had protested gun law reforms on the House floor were evicted from the legislature.
Before that, the state party had made an average of seven donations per day.
Sam Stein contributed to this report.