“____ days.” At the start of every phone call we’ve had with our grantees during these past few months, that countdown until Election Day has been their universal answer to the question, “How are you doing?” As that clock winds down until next Tuesday, we wanted to highlight some of the great revenue generation work these organizations are doing, as well as share lessons they’re learning and thoughts on what we think could be next for electoral-adjacent fundraising.
In 2017, statewide Democratic votes surged by 2% in Virginia because of an effort to turn out voters in less competitive (and uncompetitive) state legislative races, increasing the vote for state-wide candidates. This proved to be a cost-effective method to get out the vote because these voters—especially those who are invisible to the voter file—are often ignored by resource-strapped statewide campaigns.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if your ability to fundraise wasn’t a prerequisite to run for elected office?” This question led Jonathan Zucker to found It Starts Today (IST), a 527 that enables crowdfunded public financing of Democratic candidates through low-cost monthly subscriptions. Founded on election night 2016 and launched during the Women’s March in January 2017, IST has raised over $472,000 to fund every U.S. House and Senate Democratic candidate.
To test the crowdfunding model on state legislative races, in late 2017 Zucker partnered with Michele Hornish to found It Starts Today Missouri (ISTM). Because Missouri law allows 527 organizations to accept 501(c)(4) donations, Progressive Multiplier Action Fund was able to make a grant for ISTM to test different audiences and creatives through Facebook donor acquisition advertising to scale the MO subscriber base. “60% of Missouri has seen nothing but GOP candidates for cycle upon cycle. Democrats who do run in those districts have little infrastructure on which to rely and significant fundraising challenges to overcome. With no support and limited ability to do outreach, they become just a name on a ballot…voters are left without a real choice,” Zucker said. “We are changing that.”
ISTM’s revenue generation experiment results were impressive. With a $15,000 PM grant, the organization expects to bring in more than $81,000 in subscriber donations over the next three years. “We’ve figured out how to harness full cycle recurring donations to fund candidates. While some incumbents are able to do this, no challenger can. Most candidates (even incumbents) enter a state race 6-12 months out and there isn’t much time for recurring donations to pile up,” Zucker stated. “The way we approach electoral funding is we engage donors who contribute for the full cycle: for example a donor we recruited in December 2017 is here for 2020, and they’ll still be with us in Jan 2021.”
The benefits of this revenue generation model go far beyond the direct funding of candidates and building the subscriber base in Missouri. Hornish believes, “It’s a lot easier to recruit great candidates when we can tell them we’ll have cash for them when they are the nominee, especially in red states like Missouri… In scarlet red areas where they’ve had no Democrat running for so long, conservatives have become radicalized—and Democrats demonized. With more Democrats running in these districts, the candidates can challenge what their neighbors thought they knew about Democrats. They’re also able to rebuild infrastructure in places where cash-strapped state parties can’t invest. They can hire young people for campaigns, they can train volunteers (and give them pizza), they can help habitualize voting for people who didn’t see a need to—all while building their own experience and spreading a Democratic message. This is the long game and it builds the bench.”
The group’s goals for 2022 are to expand its crowdfunding for state legislatures to several states facing competitive statewide (Governors and Senators) elections. At the same time, it plans to activate the It Starts Today national network of donors to start recurring donations that will fund key Senate races in 2022 and beyond–coupling their sophisticated understanding of campaign finance with an understanding of low dollar asks that lets them get money where it can actually transform democracy every cycle.
“We have found a way to harness this amazing grassroots community that has come forward since 2016. People are looking for a way to stay involved,” Hornish said. “They may not be able to dedicate time, but they can donate $10 a month. It’s strategic, it’s simple, and makes people feel like they are part of an important community.”