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Scott Brown’s Online Fundraising Machine: Inside the Numbers

Patrick Ruffini

Patrick Ruffini

A word cloud of the most commonly used words in donor messages to the Scott Brown campaign.

Engage was proud to play a role in Scott Brown’s historic, come-from-behind victory through iContribute, our online fundraising platform. In the end, over $12 million was raised online with over 157,000 individual donations, more than leveling the playing field and dramatically altering the political calculus as the Democratic establishment went all out to counter a Republican spending advantage powered by small donors. In the end, Brown defeated Martha Coakley by 52 to 47 percent to become the 41st Republican vote in the U.S. Senate.

It was December 29th when people nationally awoke to the opportunity of a pickup in Massachusetts and began donating in large numbers. For the next three weeks, things not only didn’t let up, they grew exponentially. On at least three occasions, an external event caused online fundraising to see a sustained three- and four-fold increase that would hold for at least five days until the next event tripled it again. (Keeping the servers up in the middle of all this was no small feat, but one I’m happy to report was managed very successfully.)

To give you a sense of how crazy things were in the middle of all this, ten days out, when the campaign had raised just over $2 million online, I decided to plug the daily numbers into a spreadsheet, and comparing them to another major effort that went viral on the eve of an election, came up with a projection that we would raise an extra $1.5 million online for the campaign.

Little did I know then that the real figure would be an extra $10 million.

To give some perspective, this was likely the biggest nonpresidential political online fundraising event ever. The most I had ever heard of a statewide candidate raising online before this was Jim Webb’s $4 million in 2006 post-Macaca. Had the campaign cranked it up just one more notch, this would have been on par with the biggest moments of the Presidential campaign, with the Obama campaign raising $10 million in 24 hours after Sarah Palin’s convention speech and McCain’s raising that amount in a weekend after the Palin pick was announced.

Three Big Moments

We normally refer to phenomena like Scott Brown as “hockey stick moments” — the campaign raises money at a steady rate until a month or two before the election when the grassroots finally keys in and starts giving money at five and ten times the rate they were before. The chart of daily fundraising totals looks like a hockey stick with a sudden sustained takeoff towards the end.

The Brown campaign was the ultimate hockey stick, but one that unfolded in stairstep fashion in distinct phases that I’d like to delve deeper into.

The Baseline: A Storm Brewing in Massachusetts

Within hours of setting Scott Brown’s iContribute page up following his announcement of candidacy last September, we could tell that he was inspiring a special level of grassroots loyalty. Hundreds of people contributed within days of his announcement despite his not being given much of a shot. Each blast e-mail would bring in hundreds more donors. Perhaps it’s something about being part of the hardy Republican minority in Massachusetts, but we had at least an early inkling that should it be close, Scott Brown could count on an extremely motivated base in Massachusetts.

Big Moment #1: National Republicans Not Getting Involved?

What kicked off the Scott Brown phenomenon, at least from a national grassroots perspective?

Simple. It was this article in the Boston Herald suggesting that the National Republican Senatorial Committee would not make a major financial commitment to Brown, beyond a $50,000 check and some technology investments. We now know that there may have been a deliberate strategy to play down national GOP involvement in deep blue Massachusetts, but the article served another very useful purpose: it motivated online activists to want to help bridge the gap, and fight tooth and nail for the 41st seat when the national party seemingly wouldn’t. No one was under any illusion that Scott Brown was the favorite, but they believed that so long as there was even a remote shot to derail the health care bill, we should take it. This post from HotAir was emblematic of the initial response, and in the sleepy week between Christmas and New Year’s, radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Herman Cain (substituting for Sean Hannity) brought in hundreds of donations with each on-air mention.

Lesson: The Internet responds to need. The notion that the national party did not support Scott Brown, ironically, was probably one of the best things that could have happened to Brown. On the other hand, news that the NRSC was pouring in millions in ads would have meant that the Herald piece would not have the opportunity to have the impact it did, depressing online fundraising and possibly preventing it from ever getting off the ground, and thus altering the whole trajectory of the race.

Big Moment #2: The Rasmussen Poll

The entire campaign up to Tuesday, January 5th had been marked by a dearth of public polling. We simply did not know how much ground Scott Brown had to make up. Local Massachusetts’ bloggers conducted a “citizens’ poll” in certain communities that, when adjusted for the partisan skew statewide, showed Scott Brown down mid-to-high single digits. My posts over on The Next Right and Sean Trende’s analysis in RealClearPolitics pointed to the potential for a single digit deficit, but we really had no hard data to go on. Massachusetts was a rare bird: a statewide election without any significant polling until two weeks out.

This changed on January 6th, when Rasmussen released a poll showing Brown 9 points down. There was real question in my mind whether this would be enough to inspire donors to keep giving. This was on the high range of what many of the pundits were saying Brown was down by. Had it been in double digits, people may have begun to write off the race, and this was getting perilously close to that level, in my opinion.

When I looked at the fundraising numbers an hour or so after the poll hit, I was relieved to find that the reaction was very much the opposite of what I feared. Single digits meant a competitive race to people, and this triggered another inflection point in fundraising. The campaign raised more than three times that day than it did the day before, and fundraising continued at these levels for the next five days. By this point, enough was being raised online to have an impact on whether and how much the campaign could spend on last-minute media buys.

The chart below of donations made per hour shows the initial jump because of the Rasmussen poll, and how that caused a permanent change in online donations that would last until the next huge jump, on January 11th. The spike you see about midway through this period was Scott Brown’s appearance on Sean Hannity’s TV show, which I has assumed would be hands down the busiest moment for the remainder of the campaign.

I was wrong.

Big Moment #3: “The Bomb”

In their post on the race, Brown’s new media team Kurt and Kris Luidhardt wrote about the internal debate going on inside the campaign about whether to disclose the campaign’s phenomenal fundraising success. Doing so, it was feared, could tip the Democrats off and awaken the sleeping giant. By the beginning of the week of January  11th, however, the cat was pretty much out of the bag. Public Policy Polling showed Brown up by 1, and it was clear that Brown was starting to inch ahead of Coakley in his media buys.

In the end it was decided that just for one day, the campaign would let people how it was doing. The impact turned out to be transformative.

The campaign had set a goal of raising $500,000 online that day — which would have been its best day to date, but not by a whole lot. Though I have long preached that transparency in online fundraising is good, I had wondered whether exposing the campaign’s largesse, at this level, might depress future giving. It was a fleeting worry, because not only did the campaign raise $1.3 million that day, later news reports of $1 million per day actually understated the case. The moneybomb day was actually the weakest day that week. The strongest came on Friday, when the campaign raised $2.2 million from over 25,000 people. Last-minute contributions are normally on the decline 4 days out, as people turn their attention to GOTV, but the announcement that President Obama was coming in on Sunday for a rally caused yet another boom in donations. How much was Obama’s visit worth to Brown? My conservative estimate was $900,000 on that one day alone.

The moneybomb that just wouldn’t stop going off has renewed my faith in transparency and letting donors how you are doing, in real time. One people see that their gifts are making that big of an impact, it becomes socially acceptable for others to join. It’s pure bandwagon effect. Although the campaign did not continue to expose its fundraising numbers, just the limited data from that one day gave the numbers a real and sustained boost, and created an almost unconscious sense of the grassroots needing to one-up the commitment they’d made before as it pressed forward toward Election Day.

And it wasn’t just online. On the day of the event, @ScottBrownMA tweeted what I think is about the awesomest thing ever if you’re an online politico like me:

Senior Citizens are calling our office b/c they heard about “the bomb” but are not online & want their checks to count #masen

The next day, Martha Coakley would respond by leaving the campaign trail to attend a high-priced fundraiser in D.C. They knew they couldn’t keep up online, and the Democratic establishment was in full panic mode.

Media Impact: What Worked? 

People will invariably ask about the success of various media in driving the online fundraising success of the campaign. To do a bit of analysis of this, I took a look at the words people volunteered when asked about who referred them to donate — a field we make available to all contributors. The responses speak volumes.

An important note: to get people involved at this level, you need something that transcends online and spills into every medium. Though Brown’s cable news appearances were the biggest driver of all the sources I tested, it’s important to remember that early on, when that Herald piece first came out, it was bloggers who leapt into the fray first, and they helped set the narrative that major radio outlets and the cable networks responded to.

Below are some of the most popular words donors used when describing the source of their donation, indexed to the most popular response, Fox News at 100:

Fox (News): 100

Hannity: 57.7

Radio: 54.4

Web: 18.5

(Laura) Ingraham: 15.0

TV: 13.1

Blog: 10.0

Greta: 8.0

(Michelle) Malkin: 7.7

Online: 7.0

Facebook: 6.4

Instapundit: 5.4

RedState: 5.1

HotAir: 5.1

(Herman) Cain: 4.5

Twitter: 2.6

Lesson: Blogs are still important online in driving a narrative and contributions, probably moreso than Facebook and Twitter, though I believe the latter can serve as an important signaling mechanism for bloggers and media to pick the story up and run with it. And it should be no surprise that once a story like this gets into traditional media, the impact can be magnified many-fold.

As we have written in the pages of the Washington Post, the Brown race represented a coming of age of the online right. During the right’s online wilderness years (this “wildnerness” being the mirror image of being in power in Washington) many pundits wondered whether the right was at a permanent structural disadvantage online, whether there was something inherent to the demographics or mentality of Republicans that prevented them from going online.

This thinking has been proven utterly wrong.

No one party has a monopoly on the Internet, and now that the right has needed to use grassroots tools to break the Democratic lock-hold on Washington, they’ve done it in a big way. And it’s happened much faster, and with greater early electoral success, than the evolution of the liberal “netroots” which didn’t really take off until the end of Bush’s first term.

This is going to be a fun 2010.

  • Viva la revolucion « JimEltringham.com

    2010-10-15 17:43:12

    [...] of the consultants who helped Scott Brown take back the people’s seat in Massachusetts, wrote an extensive wrap-up of the campaign’s online fundraising in the last month.   The whole thing is a good read, but his assessment of the recent online innovations of each [...]

  • Margaret

    2010-07-27 11:57:39

    Dear Patrick, I'm an intern at Call2Action and I'm researching social media’s relationship to politics. I’m having some difficulty understanding how to measure political success due to social media, and I was hoping to learn more about online donations. With donations, are there patterns towards success? Should one be more concerned with the number of potential donors it reaches, the number of receivers who donate, or total amount of donations? Do you have a method of tracking where donators are from and how much they donate? Any insight into this field would be instrumental in my research. Thank you for your help, Best, Margaret

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    [...] Awesome recap!Mauibrad [...]

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    [...] The real time contributions graph and full list of “new media” influences can be seen at Engaged. [...]

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    [...] Qui c’è la sua analisi di come e perché il candidato GOP ha vinto grazie alla rete. [...]

  • Mauibrad

    2010-01-30 07:57:49

    Awesome recap!

  • Scott Brown’s Fundraising Graph | ProjectVirginia

    2010-01-29 18:53:28

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  • mtbmobile

    2010-01-28 21:44:22

    Thanks for a great narrative, Patrick! The excitement of the campaign comes clearly through in your writing. It's so gratifying to see this powerful medium finally deliver the value we knew was there! Blogs and their younger cousins, Facebook and Twitter, have democratized politics in a way rarely seen before, opening up real participation -- a fundamental sense of "being on the inside" -- that makes paying attention to politics so much more interesting to the average person. I hope that this trend will continue, and that our governance will be strengthened by the ever-larger amount of Americans actually taking part. As a mobile development company, we're eager to be able to write this same kind of success narrative after this election season, once campaigns have had an opportunity to really put our mobile applications to use. We're working hard and keeping the faith to make sure the next generation of powerful tools are available to campaigns with the vision to use them. We appreciate the encouragement and passion that you provide!