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The quadrennial quest for $1 dollar donations
To make the GOP presidential debate stage, “also-ran” candidates will need to get creative - just like Democrats did four years ago
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In order to participate in the GOP’s official presidential primary debates, each candidate must meet a requirement of securing at least 40,000 individual donors to their campaign (in addition to some polling requirements). While that level of support has already been surpassed by the likes of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, several lesser-known candidates will have to get creative in order to earn their chance to debate. We’ve been through this before – the DNC invented this type of debate requirement in 2019 – so we know the quest for small dollar donations will soon become a desperate, digital gold rush.
For this week’s FWIW, we’ll outline how the Republican candidates are currently planning to win over donors, and we’ll speak to some of the Democrats who ran these types of efforts four years ago. But first…
By the numbers
FWIW, political advertisers spent just over $8 million on Facebook and Instagram ads last week. These were the top ten spenders nationwide:
The Koch Brothers' political operation, Americans for Prosperity, is doing what most Republicans won’t do: taking on Donald Trump directly. The conservative dark money group is running Facebook and Instagram video ads targeting voters in the GOP’s early-nominating states asserting that the former President can’t beat Joe Biden next November.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) kicked off her campaign for the U.S. Senate this week, and her team launched a wave of Facebook and Google fundraising ads in the process. If elected, she would become the only Black woman serving in the Senate. Watch her launch video here:
Meanwhile, political campaigns spent $932,500 on Google and YouTube ads last week. Here were the top ten spenders:
…and on Snapchat, political campaigns and organizations in the United States have spent around $2.4 million on advertising in 2023. Here are the top ten spenders YTD:
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Your 2024 digital dispatch
FWIW, here’s how much money likely or confirmed 2024 presidential candidates have spent on Facebook + Google ads to date (1/1 - 6/17):
Former TX Rep. Will Hurd kicked off his presidential campaign yesterday, with the stated goal of taking on Donald Trump directly. Hurd’s political operation, Future Leaders Fund, had been advertising on digital platforms for several weeks.
Francis Suarez’s super PAC is spending its money running attack ads against… Chris Christie
ND Gov. Doug Burgum is the top spending GOP presidential candidate on television ads, even outspending Trump and DeSantis-affiliated super PACs, according to NBC News
Ron DeSantis’ super PAC accidentally mass-texted supporters a video with some wild audio problems
From around the internet
A hilarious TikTok creator from Philly is finally getting his due – and has been invited to events by Governor Josh Shapiro and the White House.
Sen. Jon Tester’s digital team needs to stop with these grim tweets
Users' engagement with mainstream news and political posts on Facebook continues to decline – likely a result of Facebook’s feed algorithm continuing to deprioritize that type of content.
Kyrsten Sinema’s under-the-radar re-election campaign
Publicly and in the press, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) is playing coy about whether or not she’s running for re-election. Online, however, her re-election campaign is kicking into gear. Sinema’s campaign has made several key digital moves signaling its intent to wage a tough battle for re-election. Read all about it here >>
Making the debate stage
Earlier this month, the RNC announced that in order to participate in the GOP’s official presidential primary debates, candidates must meet a threshold of securing 40,000 individual donors (in addition to some polling requirements). While that level of support has already been surpassed by the likes of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley, several lesser-known candidates will have to get creative to earn their chance to debate. Many of them, including Chris Christie, Francis Suarez, Asa Hutchinson, Doug Burgum, Perry Johnson, and now Will Hurd, are beginning to fill supporters' feeds and inboxes with urgent appeals for $1 dollar get-me-on-the-debate-stage donations.
Who can we thank for this quadrennial quest for thousands of $1 dollar donations? That would be the Democratic National Committee, where a small group of staff under the leadership of then-Chairman Tom Perez came up with this whole idea in 2019. Faced with nearly two dozen potential candidates turning a debate stage into a circus, the DNC attempted to narrow the roster of participants to only those who could demonstrate some kind of viability – and a good way to measure that is whether or not a lot of people are inspired enough to chip in a few bucks.
Back then, Democratic presidential candidates used all sorts of digital strategies – including ads, “fly-in” contests, merch giveaways, video appeals, texts, and emails – to hit their 65,000 donor goals. And that included spending more money than they raised on Facebook ads to find new donors.
“In such a crowded field where you simultaneously had a million types of candidates and overlap between them, the threshold for what people would feel sold on was really high,” says Emmy Bengtson, partner at Wavelength Strategy who was Gillibrand’s Deputy Communications Director on the campaign. “Gimmicks got old immediately, and fatigue with the race as a whole was a constant fear.”
Even a boyish-looking, unknown candidate like Pete Buttigieg made getting to the debate stage the initial focus of his digital program – running the ads below in February 2019 asking for help in getting to the podium. But, instead of having to resort to incessant asks and wild tactics, Buttigieg was able to capitalize on a breakout moment during a March televised town hall to quickly reach the donor threshold.
“Nothing is better than organic virality from a media moment,” says Maxwell Nunes, who led Pete for America’s digital advertising operation. “Candidates should make the most of their major moments so they don't have to resort to fundraising tactics that are difficult or borderline slimy… I know a bunch of [the GOP candidates] are doing primetime CNN town halls – that’s the same platform that Pete successfully used."
Later in the 2019 campaign, as the DNC gradually raised the donor threshold for subsequent debates, Team Pete experimented with giveaways and “fly-in” contests to motivate more supporters to donate. “There is a decent number of people that you can get to donate because they are interested in winning something,” says Nunes. “We called it the Showcase Showdown aspect of it.”
This cycle, the GOP “also-ran” candidates are beginning to experiment with different online tactics to recruit the minimum number of grassroots donors. Several of them, like self-funding ND Gov. Doug Burgum, are using debate-specific language in Facebook and Google advertising:
Most of the Republican candidates also have something that Democrats in 2019 didn’t: single-candidate super PACs. Super PACs and other outside entities affiliated with Francis Suarez, Asa Hutchinson, and Chris Christie are accepting unlimited contributions from major donors and then funneling that money into digital ads soliciting small-dollar donations directly to their favored candidates’ bank accounts. In other words, we’re in a very weird era for campaign finance rules.
If direct appeals don’t work, free merch giveaways may help motivate first-time donors. Suarez’s super PAC is giving out “Dump Joe Biden” stickers, and longshot Perry Johnson is hawking $1 dollar t-shirts. Jessica Piper at POLITICO recently noted that in the larger ecosystem of Republican grassroots fundraising, 40,000 seems like an achievable number, as there were 2.5 million GOP donors in 2022. The real question on our minds is how many of those Republican donors are willing to open their wallets for someone not named Donald Trump?
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