Grassroots fundraising has become an increasingly important tool for political campaigns in recent years, enabling them to reach more potential donors and generate greater financial support. With political races becoming more expensive and digital campaigning reducing costs, candidates, PACs, and other organizations have invested significantly in these fundraising efforts.
The Center for Campaign Innovation's 2022 Post-Election Survey and Focus Groups asked voters and donors about their attitudes and behaviors around donating to political campaigns. The research revealed key insights about how donors are giving, who they choose to support, what motivates them to donate, and what they think about common campaign fundraising tactics.
This report provides a detailed analysis of these findings along with evidence-based recommendations for practitioners on how to more effectively raise funds from supporters.
Despite the overall decrease in turnout for the 2022 midterm election year, the proportion of donors who participated remained largely unchanged; 13% of those who voted were donors, compared to 14% in 2020. Nonetheless, the actual number of donors declined. This change was largely due to a decrease in Democratic donors leading closer to parity between Republican and Democrats in terms of number of donors.
In 2020, the Democratic National Committee made grassroots donations a prerequisite for presidential candidates to participate in sanctioned debates which helped drive an increase in volume of donors.
Donors tend to be older and more civically engaged, with higher incomes and greater educational attainment than the average voter across both the Democratic and Republican parties. Democrats’ advantage among college educated voters, especially those with postgraduate degrees translates into stronger fundraising performance.
Republican donors tend to skew more male, conservative, and more Trump-oriented than Republican voters generally. Democratic donors are whiter, more liberal, and better educated than the rest of the Democratic coalition. Understanding that your donors are different than your voters is important so campaigns don’t over extend themselves ideologically trying to raise money, as many Democratic campaigns did in 2020.
Donors are more likely to participate in an array of civic activities like signing petitions (54%), sharing political content online (53%), contacting elected officials (49%), participating in political events (30%) and providing volunteer support for candidates' campaigns (17%).
Centrists are less likely to donate with donors primarily coming from both ends of the partisan and ideological spectrums.
Facebook still reigns supreme as the go-to social media platform for Republican donors, with 46% of them using it daily. YouTube is at 28% and Instagram at 19% follow suit in second and third place respectively. Across right-wing alternatives like Truth Social, Rumble, Parler, Gettr, and Gab only 23% of GOP contributors report being active on any of these platforms on a daily basis.
The majority of political donors use Google's Gmail platform as their preferred email client. Fifty percent of Republican donors and 59% of Democratic donors rely on Gmail to send and receive emails.
In our focus group with Republican donors, participants said political giving made them feel “empowered” and was a “form of encouragement.” They specifically reference prominent politicians like Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, and Jim Jordan who are in the public eye and garner significant media coverage, especially by Fox News.
In 2022, donors gave more often than in the previous cycle. 81% of donors contributed at least twice in 2022 compared to 64% in 2020. Democratic donors are still contributing more often and to more candidates than their Republican counterparts, but GOP donors are more engaged than they were in 2020.
Donors continue to give primarily via digital methods with 70% reporting making an online donation with their credit or debit card – an increase from 62% in 2020. Donating via mail still remains a key channel with 31% of donors reporting using that method. Giving via text message tripled from 4% in 2020 to 13% in 2022, making it as commonplace as giving at an in-person event (14%).
Digital is the most common way Republican donors give, but more than half of GOP donors also give via a traditional method like mail (38%), in-person events (16%), and in response to a phone call (3%). When it comes to donors aged 65 and older, giving online is still the main channel (69%) but they remain the most likely age group to donate by mail (40%). Younger voters aged 18-49 were the most likely to give via an in-person event (23%).
Both Republican and Democratic donors reported giving in roughly equal amounts over the cycle, but those who supported independent or non-partisan candidates and ballot initiative campaigns gave significantly more. The reason donors to ballot initiatives and independent/non-partisan campaigns give larger amounts is because they’re more likely to donate to multiple candidates, often donating to a partisan candidate for one office but then also donating to a local non-partisan candidate or issue.
Unsurprisingly, donors who gave in previous cycles contributed more than first-time donors as did more frequent donors. Almost two-thirds of donors gave three or more times during the midterms.
While there were fewer individual donors this cycle than in 2020, those who did gave to more candidates. Those donors that had previously given in 2020 but lapsed in 2022 say they did not give this cycle because they did not have candidates who inspired them (27%) or faced financial issues (17%) and rising inflation (7%).
During the 2022 midterms, two-thirds (66%) of donors gave to more than one candidate, compared to 47% in 2020.
Without the presence of a Presidential race, there was a significant increase in giving to other federal and state races. Still, 23% of donors reported giving to the PAC of a potential future presidential candidate like Donald Trump’s Save America or Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution.
Donors also gave to more out-of-state or district candidates who were not on their ballots than they did in 2020. Fifty eight percent (58%) of donors report giving to a candidate or political group that represents the state or district they live in, but nearly half (48%) gave to a candidate or PAC from a different state and 39% gave to a candidate within their state but a different district. The 2022 midterms followed the decennial redistricting process which shifted congressional and legislative boundaries in many states.
44% of donors gave to party committees, national organizations, and PACs that support candidates in multiple states. While most donors are still giving to candidates that appear on their ballot, 2022 saw donors also giving more to out-of-state/district candidates as races become nationalized.
Democratic donors are more likely to give to both candidates on their ballot and out-of-state/district candidates (52%) than Republicans (36%). Democrats also have an advantage when it comes to giving to state and local races. Nearly a third (31%) of Republican donors supported a PAC affiliated with political figures like Donald Trump or Nikki Haley, compared to just 16% of Democratic donors who report giving to PACs affliaited with political figures like Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders.
Voters and donors had strong opinions about campaign fundraising practices in terms of volume and tone. Digital campaigning has reduced the cost of fundraising significantly in recent cycles and both parties have made concerted efforts to recruit more online donors, but this has led to the unintended consequence of targeting appeals too broadly.
More than half of the voters who reported receiving a fundraising solicitation said they would NOT consider donating. Indeed nearly half of donors to Republican (48%) or Democratic (47%) campaigns reported receiving solicitations from the opposite party.
This overly broad fundraising strategy has political ramifications as well. About half of ticket splitters and swing voters reported receiving requests to donate from campaigns. Fundraising messages that are intended to motivate partisans on both sides are instead reaching voters in the middle who decide electoral outcomes.
This was not just observed nationally, but also in several of our battleground states and districts.
Most of the voters and donors who would consider opting in for email and text messages – key drivers of online fundraising – have already done so. One in four voters (23%) reported opting in to receive emails, text messages, or both from campaigns. An additional 13% said they would consider doing so. Among donors, 55% report having opted in for communications (despite 86% saying they still received emails) with just 12% of donors saying they would opt-in.
Those that would consider opting in for campaign communication say limiting fundraising requests and ensuring their personal information would neither be shared nor sold without permission are the best ways to overcome hesitation on signing up.
Indeed, activists are upset at both the volume and tone of campaigns’ fundraising solicitations. In the focus groups, we asked respondents to estimate the percentage of emails they get from campaigns that were requests for donations, and then later on asked them to imagine they were a campaign manager having to balance fundraising with keeping supporters engaged. Volunteers and donors estimate that 90% of the emails they receive are fundraising requests.
Digital activists, who are people who follow and interact with candidates and campaigns online but do NOT donate or volunteer, report receiving fewer fundraising requests because some are not getting any fundraising requests since they are getting emails from the candidates’ taxpayer-funded offices, rather than the campaign side.
However, across all these groups, activists would recommend campaigns send fewer emails requesting money than they are currently receiving. While these activists realize fundraising is important, they want to know what their candidate is doing, what the campaign is doing with the money they have raised, and where candidates stand on issues, as these activists state that information would make them more likely to donate.
In addition to the frequency of fundraising emails, both donors and activists broadly are turned off by the tone of the fundraising emails. Participants in the focus groups complained about emails and texts that were “rude” and the volume was “annoying.” They even mentioned specific groups as “hard sell scammers'' for using tactics like matching donations.
When asked to compare the emails they receive from campaigns to emails from retailers and other organizations, they felt that retailers offer something in return, while campaign emails are just asking for money.
The focus groups showed that donors and activists are not necessarily looking for something tangible like access or even merchandise, but a sense of what the campaign will do with the money they receive and what the candidates will do if elected. As one donor said about what she wanted in an email from a candidate, “I don’t just want the price. I want the detail, the product information, and I want the return policy.”
Campaign fundraisers should better segment and target their digital marketing efforts to ensure that the intended audiences are being reached with appropriate messages and calls to action. Our research found that fundraising solicitations which are typically intended for loyal partisans were also reaching persuadable voters and even donors to the opposite party.
In fact, the reach of fundraising communications has become so broad, it is among the most significant forms of voter contact overall. What was previously a campaign fundraising strategy aimed at likely donors has become a dragnet of low effort advertising and outreach.
Campaigns should better target their fundraising tactics and develop more personalized, compelling messages to recipients. Focus conversion funnels around specific audiences based on key issues.
While matching emails and urgent deadlines can be effective and have their place, they may be better used on a campaigns’ existing donors instead of a prospect list. When prospecting for new donors, campaigns should treat their communication as voter contact, focusing more on messaging about the candidate and the campaign, than on tactics around urgent deadlines and donor matches.
One of the consistent messages we heard from donors and activists in focus groups is that they are looking for more updates from campaigns than simply repeated fundraising asks. Just as a campaign would not make every post on Facebook or Twitter a request for a contribution, campaigns need to balance their email programs with a mix of fundraising requests and campaign updates.
Weekly email newsletter updates, once a staple of early digital campaigning, are one way campaigns can more effectively use email to connect with supporters.
Email newsletters are the third most common source of political news among donors, with 39% of donors reporting reading them daily, behind local TV (42%) and online search (41%), and just ahead of social media (37%). Among GOP donors, email newsletters are the second most popular daily political news source (41%), trailing only Fox News (58%).
These newsletters can be useful not only to update existing supporters and donors, but can even be an important way to show prospective donors what the candidate and campaign is doing, which could increase the receptiveness of donors to give when a follow up donation request is sent. Additionally, newsletters drive increased email engagement improving the campaign’s email sender reputation which is a key factor for email deliverability.
Campaigns should account for the non-monetary value of donors. In addition to their financial support, donors are more likely to take action on behalf of a campaign like sharing content online, signing ballot access petitions, putting up yard signs at their home, attending political events, and volunteering for the campaign.
Bombarding donors with subsequent requests for donations may result in a near-term financial gain but risks burning out a campaign’s most loyal supporters whose engagement would far exceed their monetary contribution.
Campaigns should assign non-monetary value to donors in order to take pressure off of practitioners who are measured based on their performance vis a vis return on investment. For example, factor in the cost savings for GOTV of having an opted-in supporter and the average volunteer hours from a donor to more accurately determine the value of a donor. Campaigns should also look to engage out-of-state/district donors by asking them to phone or text bank, or share on social media with their friends why they donated and encourage friends to join them in doing so.
Big tech platforms like Meta and Google have an outsized influence on the reach and effectiveness of grassroots fundraising strategies. Fifty four percent (54%) of donors reported using Google’s Gmail for their email – a key channel for fundraising. An analysis of 2020 political emails published in 2022 by researchers at North Carolina State University found that Gmail labeled nearly 60% more emails from Republicans.
Similarly, 45% of donors reported using Facebook on a daily basis making it an important medium for campaigns to recruit new supporters. Recent privacy changes from Apple restricted Facebook’s mobile ad targeting capabilities which disrupted campaigns ability to reach prospective donors, 62% of whom reported using an iPhone.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) texting is another crucial fundraising platform that presents risk to campaigns as tech providers and mobile carriers implement regulations like 10DLC and additional requirements for political users.
Campaigns cannot afford to rely only on third-party platforms and vendors for their connection to supporters and should always have backups.
Donors aged 18-49 represent a significant growth opportunity for campaigners as this cohort makes up 50% of the midterm electorate, but just 23% of donors. Despite being more engaged online overall, these younger donors were 9 points more likely to donate at an in-person event than donors on average.
Campaigns seeking to grow their donor bases should host more in-person young adult or young professional fundraising events that serve as networking opportunities. With a conscientious approach to nurturing these donors, campaigns will benefit from volunteer engagement and additional contributions.
During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the DNC required candidates to reach certain grassroots fundraising benchmarks in order to participate in sanctioned debates. Not only did this lead to an influx of new donors in 2020, but our data indicates that many returned in 2022.
The Republican National Committee should institute similar grassroots donor requirements for debate participation during the 2024 GOP presidential primaries. This would not only benefit the 2024 Presidential candidates, but have benefits for down-ballot candidates in 2024 and beyond by identifying potential new pools of GOP donors.
Our deep dive into political campaign donors offered valuable insights into who donates to campaigns, how they donate, whom they decide to support, and their opinions of common fundraising practices. Donors represent a subset of voters who are more engaged across the board on an array of civic and political activities.
Donors increasingly prefer to give online following digital solicitations via email and text, but postal mail remains a key channel for older supporters. As platforms like Gmail and Facebook alter their policies towards political campaigns, analog fundraising methods like mail and in-person events may prove to be a critical lifeline.
A more nationalized political debate is driving donors to engage in increased surrogate-seeking behavior supporting candidates from different districts and states, but this has also led to a campaign fundraising approach that is overly broad. Instead of targeting the partisans at the ends of the political spectrum, fundraising solicitations are reaching moderates and swing voters – even supporters of opposing parties.
This bombardment of more than half of the electorate for fundraising is turning off potential volunteers and voters.