How is modern political fundraising evolving?

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As both presidential candidates race to the November election finish line, they are surpassing fundraising numbers only dreamed of in past cycles. What you probably don't know is that it’s all part of my master plan.

Back in 2009, I created this projection graph:

The graph shows the total amount raised for all presidential campaigns, both Democratic and Republican, going back to 1976. I projected the 2012 totals based on the growth rates over the previous cycles. From what we’re seeing this political fundraising cycle, my estimations for 2016 and 2020 are looking far more likely than I thought back in 2009.  

We are now in the political campaign silly season, and the fundraising numbers are staggering. Governor Romney played on the public’s post-debate enthusiasm to collect an astounding $12 million online in just 48 hours. As for the Obama campaign, 6.5 million donations were made online by 3 million donors after the first debate; the average gift size was $80.

How do today’s presidential finance departments differ from those past? There are three big changes: expectations, strategies and technology.

EXPECTATIONS: Mainstream presidential campaigns set audacious fundraising goals that are consistently bigger than the previous cycle’s. Campaigns understand that political donations are oxygen to a campaign and that having deeper pockets than your competitor is a massive advantage. Having more money than your opponent does not guarantee a win, but it does increase your probability of winning greatly. Setting and meeting huge fundraising goals are the only ways to succeed as a presidential finance director.

STRATEGIES: Before McCain–Feingold (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act), candidates focused on targeting a small number of wealthy friends and supporters to finance their campaigns. This allowed a campaign to focus on politics and building a brand.

If you look at my chart above, what do you see happening in 2002—the year McCain-Feingold was enacted? Presidential fundraising totals begin to increase rapidly. The finance team’s strategies were forced to change from collecting a few big checks to creating a mass market fundraising machine that could solicit and collect millions of small contributions. Campaign finance teams quickly adapted to this new fundraising environment and have become experts in mass solicitations.

The strategies used today include highly organized, multi-level fundraising networks—which have been super successful for Team Romney—high volume direct mail and email solicitations, and a steady stream of fundraising events.

Former President George W. Bush attended 86 fundraisers for his 2004 re-election campaign, while Bill Clinton appeared at 70 and George H.W. Bush at 24. In July alone, Romney attended 22 events with contributors while Obama has hit well over 185 events to gain support for this upcoming election.

TECHNOLOGY: Technology is now a major part of political campaigns. Partisan fundraising platforms such as Crimson (R) or NGP VAN (D) are used to track all aspects of relationships with fundraising prospects and donors. Tools like RPM are used to organize, track and measure thousands of fundraisers. Email engines pump out a steady stream of A/B tested email and track response rates.

Web surfers are directed to landing pages and targeted and retargeted with personalized advertisements based on their demographics, behaviors, search terms and cookies that have been placed on their browsers. Social networks are used to leverage relationships and generate friends-asking-friends solicitations. Robots are making phone calls to supporters at home. Supporters can make donations from their computer, from their phone and with text messages via 800 numbers or by buying t-shirts and coffee mugs—from any location.

Technology is taking the friction out of fundraising. The arsenal of resources available to the modern presidential campaign was truly unimaginable to campaigns only 8 years ago. Political fundraising standards of the past just don’t measure up to today’s technological advances and financial expectations. One can’t help but speculate that the ease of online giving, the opinions shared using social media and the extreme measures that the candidates are going to—such as the high number of donor events attended—are certainly setting the bar high for future candidates.

Fundraising software is also making immense strides in influencing public opinion as the accessibility of current information, accountability to FEC regulations and the ability to track donor giving can be held in a device in the palm of your hand.

Whether it’s because of a weak economy or in spite of it, this election has reached record highs. In November, we’ll see whether dollar amounts really are directly related to votes counted. Regardless of who wins, this election has certainly set a precedent for future political fundraising.Erik currently runs sales and marketing for CMDI, the largest Republican fundraising technology platform.


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