House Democrats delivered another huge online fundraising haul in 2013, underscoring the gap between Democratic and Republican digital efforts as the GOP tries to make up ground in the technology of politics.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $19.4 million online in 2013, twice what the committee raised through the Internet in 2011. That puts the DCCC in position this year to smash the record $49.3 million it raised online for the 2012 elections and continue a rare trend: Despite being in the minority, House Democrats have outraised Republicans since 2011.
"We've had a significant online program since the 2004 or 2006 cycle," DCCC digital director Brandon English said in an interview. "But it's really blown up in the last two cycles. In 2012, a lot of the things we worked on really came together."
In 2013, the DCCC outraised the NRCC $75.8 million to $60.6 million. On donations of less than $200, the Democratic committee raised $30 million to the NRCC's $11.6 million.
Small online donations have fueled that trend. Not only did the DCCC bring in far more small donations than the National Republican Congressional Committee each month in 2013, the Democrats' massive email list allowed them to take advantage of key political moments and turbocharge their fundraising.
If you wanted to track Democratic political fortunes in 2013 and didn't have a poll handy, you could do worse than look at the flow of small donations (many of them online) to the DCCC. Two of its best three months among small donors came before and during the federal government shutdown, when Democrats opened polling leads. The other big spike, in March, came when House Republicans passed Paul Ryan's budget and he hosted his party's fundraising dinner.
Those spikes are directly attributable to the DCCC's online fundraising program, which allows the committee to jump on news when it happens and rustle money out of riled-up supporters. "Something happens at 3 and we can get an email out the door at 5," English said. That's what the committee did in 2012 when Ryan became Mitt Romney's vice presidential nominee and delivered a nationally televised convention speech, both of which led to monster fundraising days online.
"A lot of the tactics that got brought to light in the Obama campaign in 2012, you could see in DCCC fundraising years before," said Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini. That's helped Democrats take over the small-dollar fundraising dominance that Republicans used to enjoy thanks to their own pioneering techniques in the 20th century.
"The kind of practices the DCCC has been doing really reminds me of Republican direct mail," Ruffini said. "I always marvel at this machine the RNC had, and a lot of Republican organizations had, in terms of direct mail. It just worked; you start it up and it runs."
"Democrats had to catch up, and they did it through the Internet," Ruffini continued.
Now Republicans are working that angle harder.
The NRCC does not release its online fundraising totals, but the committee said it's making progress compared to years past, with online fundraising up 250 percent in 2013 compared to 2011, according to Gerrit Lansing, the committee's digital director. In 2014, the NRCC hopes to raise more than five times as much cash online as it did in the last election year.
The NRCC's problem is that it is just starting to build up its online program, while the DCCC is reaping dividends from a decade of effort. The Republican committee didn't start directing serious resources into building its email list until 2012—and late 2012 at that. Even though the NRCC is now investing in that heavily under Chairman Greg Walden, it will take years to reach the online fundraising heights Democrats have achieved.
That's part of the reason that the NRCC debuted a new website last year. Dry press releases are nowhere to be found; the focus, instead, is on shareable content that can drive people to the site, which is plastered in "contribute" and "sign up" buttons where the committee can gather email addresses.
"An element of the list-building we've done is a new content strategy that's executed on a daily basis by the communications and digital department," Lansing said. "… As a result of incoming traffic from this strategy, we've seen a significant uptick in daily and monthly donations just from people coming in from shared content on social networks."
The real gain, though, comes later, when the NRCC email list grows big enough to leverage the way Democrats have. All the effort in the world can't change that in one year.