Here’s an odd twist in the midterm elections: Even though Republicans are generally expected to keep their majority in the House, it’s the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that is raking in the bucks.
A big reason for the difference lies in online fundraising.
Most online money comes in small contributions of $200 or less, and ends up on disclosure reports in a lump-sum category called “unitemized contributions.” In that category, the DCCC has left the NRCC in the dust. So far in this cycle, the Democratic committee has raised nearly $62 million; the National Republican Congressional Committee just $20 million.
In an interview, New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the DCCC, makes a comparison to big-dollar conservatives like David and Charles Koch, and conservative mega-fundraisers like Karl Rove. “The Republicans may have the Koch brothers, and they may have Karl Rove and the superPACs,” Israel says, “but we have got a grass roots that is absolutely fired up.”
Fired-up, small-dollar donors are at the heart of online fundraising. It’s a blend of technology and emotion.
“The best way to sort of summarize it is that they found ways for folks to get involved that weren’t just fundraising,” says digital strategies consultant Taryn Rosenkranz. The DCCC is among her clients, and she was previously the committee’s chief of digital fundraising.
“People will do things that are easy for them — right? — but that they care about and you’ve made an easy way for them to do it,” she tells NPR. Those easy ways to participate include online petitions, phone banking from home and, in one of the more recent technological advances, making one-click contributions from smartphones.
In this grim season for Democrats, Rosenkranz says it’s wise to keep a fundraising pitch narrowly focused. She says it becomes about “helping this one person against this extremist, or helping this one incumbent who has done such great work for us and we want to see continue on.”
But sometimes the big picture works, too. Two months ago, on July 28, was the DCCC’s best day of online fundraising in the 2013-’14 cycle. House Republicans were rolling out their long-discussed lawsuit against President Obama, and the DCCC used the news to collect $1 million from online donors.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also relies on hot-button issues. NRCC press secretary Daniel Scarpinato says that when President Obama would praise House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at fundraising events, “that created a lot of urgency among our donors when they heard the president out there saying he wanted Nancy Pelosi back as speaker of the House.”
Scarpinato says the committee has pumped millions of dollars into digital this cycle, buying technology and hiring staff.
Online fundraising is up 300 percent from 2012, he says. “So while we’re still not where the Democrats are, we are way ahead of where Republicans have ever been in the past.”
Conservative consultant Kurt Luidhardt says the NRCC has to keep pushing on digital technology if it wants to reap serious benefits online. Like Scarpinato, he says the committee was several election cycles behind the DCCC, but it’s beginning to close the gap.
“There’s a greater respect for the importance of investing in digital, not just for fundraising but for voter contact,” Luidhardt says.
Luidhardt and others say the NRCC has a natural bias toward short-term thinking. Party committees like the NRCC “are more interested in what’s happening in November, and getting their members re-elected and getting new members elected immediately,” Luidhardt says.
After all, nobody wants to explain to a losing candidate why the party committee invested in long-range planning instead of late-October advertising.