Proactive Email List Building Drives Record Political Fundraising

August 7, 2019 Kathy Bryan

Political fundraising has been forever impacted by the internet and digital marketing. From Howard Dean leveraging Meetup.org and bloggers to build an early supporter base for his 2004 presidential bid to Former President Barack Obama raising more than $600 million from individual contributors in 2008 to President Donald Trump accumulating a record number of small-dollar donations in 2016, digital marketing has and will continue to make an impact in the world of political fundraising.

2020 Presidential Candidates Are Attracting Record Numbers Of Small-Dollar Donations

Even with individual contributor records elevated to new highs in the most recently past presidential elections, the newest slate of presidential hopefuls is making their mark on voter engagement and small-dollar fundraising.

Recently, ActBlue – a payment processor used by major Democratic presidential candidates – disclosed fundraising data for January-June to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). During the first six months of 2019, 2.4 million people donated a combined $209 million to presidential campaigns. This volume of donors is 70% higher than the number of people who donated during the first six months of 2015 and is due in large part to campaigns scaling their small-dollar donor bases.

Notable Q2 Democratic Presidential Campaign Donation Stats

  • California Senator Kamala Harris: 279,000 individual donors; average online donation size of $24
  • Colorado Senator Michael Bennet: 83% of contributions were $25 or less; 95% were below $100
  • Former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke: 99% of donations made online; average donation size of $30
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden: Average donation size of $49
  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren: Average donation size of $28
  • New Jersey Senator Cory Booker: Average online donation of slightly more than $15
  • New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: 95% of contributions under $50; average donation size of $15
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders: Almost 1 million individual donors since campaign launched; 99% of donations below $100; average donation size of $20
  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee: Average donation size of $32

The volume of donors who gave during Q2 was 25% higher than the number of people who contributed to campaigns during Q1. And, according to Erin Hill, Executive Director of ActBlue, “The ceiling on that [the number of individual donors giving to presidential candidates] is very, very high, and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to it.”

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is following a similar path, in terms of donor volume. Already, his campaign is reporting small-dollar donations from tens of millions of Americans.

DNC Presidential Debate Rules Spur Early Engagement & Fundraising

Understanding the importance of a broad base of active supporters, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has been encouraging early and expansive engagement, including through small-donor fundraising, via its presidential debate prerequisites.

In February, the DNC announced fundraising and polling thresholds for candidates to be included in the first two presidential debates. Each candidate included within those early debates was required to achieve one of the following:

  • 1% support in each of three polls, including national or early nominating state polls
  • Donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states

For the next two debates (scheduled for September and October), the DNC upped the ante. The prerequisite to qualify for these debates includes BOTH of the following:

  • 2% support in each of four qualifying polls during the June 28th to August 28th time period
  • Donations from 130,000 people

As a result, NPR predicts many of the candidates who appeared in the second democratic presidential debate will not qualify for the third debate. The candidates who make it are undoubtedly deploying proactive, multi-channel donor and voter engagement campaigns.

Rising Media Costs Result In Diversification Of Political Marketing Efforts

In terms of dollars spent, broadcast TV has historically dominated all other forms of political advertising, but media channel use appears to be changing.

In Q2, almost one-quarter of Harris’ expenses were for digital services, including advertising and consulting, and Biden spent $3.4 million on digital advertising in Q2. Digital marketing expenditures for political candidates are picking up, and the competition for top keywords and audiences means advertising across Google and Facebook may be getting too expensive for some candidates.


Despite breaking engagement records, the current presidential campaign has engaged less than 1% of the population as donors. And fewer than one-third of Americans say they have or will make donations during this election cycle. With most Americans keeping their money in their wallets, the potential to waste media dollars on outreach to those who will never donate is immense.

Savvy candidates know they must leverage consumer intelligence to efficiently identify and connect with audiences who have the greatest propensity to donate. Political fundraising campaigns with the strongest ROI will incorporate a diverse mix of digital media, stretching far beyond Google and Facebook, to take advantage of niche outlets with targeted audiences. “Often times the early supporters of presidential candidates have very specific interests in mind,” explained Kelley Lawrence, Director of Inside Sales at Digital Media Solutions. “Our political campaign clients are often frustrated with the broad nature of ‘traditional’ digital media and come to us in search of a direct-response method that helps them hone in on Americans who will be engaged with their messages for the long haul.” Through a robust series of qualification questions, Lawrence expanded, political campaigns are able to identify and “connect with their most passionate advocates, paying only when we find someone not already within their subscriber databases.”

Proactive Email List Development Is Key To Capitalizing On Campaign Micromoments

“A smart and expansive digital strategy can prove to be a worthwhile investment once the candidate finds the right viral moment to generate attention and money,” explained Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy, reporters for The Washington Post.

Americans are impulsive, and ecommerce has taught them to act when the desire to take action occurs. Presidential hopefuls leveraging campaign micromoments to engage supporters and raise funds have already seen immense success.

  • Harris raised $2 million in 24 hours after first debate.
  • Former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julian Castro used text messaging to increase campaign donations by more than 3000% in the 48 hours post-debate.
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio achieved a “huge influx” of small-dollar donations in the four days immediately after the first debate.
  • Colorado Senator Michael Bennet raised a record number of donations in the day following the June presidential debate, with 54% of donations coming from new donors.

According to Jessica Yarvin of PBS, “As campaigns race [to meet DNC debate requirements]… they’re also building up their digital infrastructure to bulk up their email lists to be able to capitalize on ‘viral moments’ that could lead to major fundraising.” Republican strategist Eric Wilson agrees, stating that candidates are “doing everything right to capitalize on these moments. They’re building their email lists early before the flood of attention comes. So then they can ask for money when that moment arrives.”

More than half of the political contributions processed by ActBlue were made via mobile devices. “This hints toward a campaign finance system where more donations are impulsively given by donors whenever they hear a candidate’s message,” noted Joe Andrews of CNBC. “Simply put, younger voters may be giving to Bernie Sanders in the same way they Venmo each other.”

Presidential candidates who proactively build their membership lists will be best able to take advantage of viral opportunities and micromoments. “When we talk with campaigns and advocacy groups, they always wish they’d started building up their email lists earlier,” explained Lawrence. “Often they come to us realizing they’ve already missed a big opportunity, and they’re determined not to miss the next [big opportunity].”

Today’s Presidential Campaign Donors Are Engaged And More Likely To Donate Again

Approximately 20% of today’s Democratic presidential campaign donors have given to multiple Democratic presidential candidates, and many donors are contributing multiple times — often to the same campaign.

Sanders and Warren are two of the many presidential hopefuls actively working to engage massive audiences of small donors who can give again and again. As explained by David Karpf, Media and Public Affairs Professor at George Washington University, they have each developed “a giant list they can go back to.”

“The increase in the total number of people making political contributions over the past 10, 15, 20 years has been one of the most positive developments in American politics,” believes Michael Toner, Former Chairman of the FEC and one-time Chief Counsel of the Republican National Committee (RNC). In addition to making voters feel more involved in the political process, donating funds creates a feeling of empowerment. “Even with one dollar, five dollars,” said Ellen Weintraub, Chair of the FEC, “they’re [donors are] literally invested.”

Michael J. Malbin, Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute believes small-dollar donors are also more likely to volunteer for campaign efforts, including get-out-the-vote initiatives. “I do believe that giving is not only an expression of feeling empowered,” he said, “but it reinforces a feeling of engagement.”

Driving Political Participation At Scale Is The Future Of Campaign Support

When it comes to engaging campaign supporters, digital marketing and social media have proven to be top methods of driving political participation at scale. But digital marketing is not a one-size-fits-all approach to political fundraising. Every successful political campaign has its own angle that allows it to productively engage and connect with supporters, including donors and voters. For example, even the Sanders and Warren campaigns, which both target left-wing voters, are very different. Supporters of Sanders are typically lower-income and less educated, while Warren advocates often have postgraduate degrees.

When it comes to small-dollar fundraising at scale, it’s easy to think mass media will drive the masses. “But mass media can lead to campaign bankruptcy,” asserted Lawrence. “Targeted, people-based marketing at scale is the future of political marketing.”

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About the Author

Kathy Bryan

Kathy Bryan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Digital Media Solutions (DMS). In this role, Kathy is responsible for all aspects of marketing and communications for DMS, the leading global martech company leveraging innovative, performance-driven brand and marketplace solutions to connect consumers and advertisers.

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