Ahead of this year’s crowded contest to secure the Democrat party’s nomination for president, the DNC established, for the first time, a grassroots fundraising requirement as part of a candidate’s eligibility to be on a debate stage. It has proven to be a brilliant decision.
For the first debate, happening next week over two nights, candidates needed 65,000 donors from at least 20 different states in order to guarantee a spot on the stage (some are qualifying via polling alone). With 20 Democrats taking to the stage including candidates like Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, there’s little evidence that the requirement kept people away, but it has forced many candidates to invest very heavily early on into building their email lists.
And online fundraising is an easily visible, objective metric, that serves as a very effective proxy for a campaign’s commitment to implementing the kind of serious digital strategy that is required for successful campaigns today.
It’s the rare sort of “requirement” that serves the interests of both parties. On one hand, the campaigns are forced to take digital seriously on their campaign, something Democrats have been concerned with for some time. And on the other hand, the party leveraging the enthusiasm for their two dozen candidates to build the party’s own email list and voter file.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders demonstrated that a campaign driven by grassroots fundraising can be competitive, but in 2019, the entire field of Democrats have shown that any candidate can build a robust, sustainable grassroots fundraising operation. Without a doubt, it will change the way these candidates campaign in the future and more importantly, their campaign staff will go on to work on other campaigns with these new insights.
Even Joe Biden, the current front-runner, and now three-time presidential candidate is being dragged into the modern era of campaigns, outspending his opponents in online advertising. Without the DNC’s grassroots fundraising requirement, this would not have been the case.
When the 23 also-rans return to the senate, launch their campaigns for a different office, or become advocates for a specific policy issue, they will have an incredibly valuable asset – their email list – that will launch them to future success.
But you may not know the huge benefit directly to the DNC. They have effectively outsourced the bulk of their email list building to the individual campaigns.
As part of the requirement to access the party’s voter file, each candidate has entered into a data sharing agreement and has also agreed to sign email copy on behalf of the DNC. A recent email from one of the 2020 candidates on behalf of the party had this disclaimer:
Not only are they growing their list in the process, the party is training tens of thousands of grassroots supporters on how to become online donors. They’re familiarizing them with the process, and, in the case of Act Blue, creating a database of one-click donors.
The eventual nominee will have access to an incredible grassroots fundraising infrastructure that will be necessary to take on the Trump campaign’s massive, early advantage.
But pause for a moment to reflect on how this happened. There wasn’t a single innovation in technology – in fact, both Republicans and Democrats have identical tools in this case. The only innovation was in prioritizing grassroots fundraising and cooperation.
The challenges holding Republicans back in grassroots fundraising are purely cultural, not technological. Any efforts that ignore the mindset shift will prove ineffective.