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Positively BEGGING You

Spammed with demands from the Democrats
A pixellated image of Nancy Pelosi's face surrounded by a flurry of email icons.

I open one of my Gmail accounts, and I’m greeted by a message from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the official wing of the Democratic Party responsible for winning House races. “Positively BEGGING you, Arvin,” it reads. “We asked once. We asked twice. Now we’re asking for a third time!” That’s certainly an undercount. Every day, people are inundated with political fundraising emails like this; a quick search reveals the DCCC has been emailing me five, six, sometimes seven times a day for nearly two years. I have no idea how I ended up on this email list in the first place.

In our busted and corrupt political system, one dominated by endless dark money, the need for a grassroots counterweight is clear. In a practical sense, email fundraising must serve as an essential tool in building this political power, but over the last several years, a series of alienating, self-sabotaging practices have become normalized across the industry, threatening its viability in the long-term.

My career, in its various incarnations across the political space—including small PACs, large PACS, numerous campaigns, and non-electoral organizations—has given me some proximity to the hellscape that is digital fundraising. I’ve seen what digital tools can provide, the power that they can unleash against an opponent flush with corporate cash—and I’ve also seen how spam-like digital practices can jeopardize an entire campaign operation. 

But it’s not just the current practices themselves that pose a risk to the longevity of a political project—it’s the entrenchment of an orientation to politics that figures hard cash as the only means of political involvement. As far as campaign communications go, especially those carried out over email and text, political engagement has become transactional, reduced to a supporter’s capacity, or willingness, to donate. If the realm of what constitutes political participation continues to shrink in this way, we risk ceding the entirety of political speech to the dollar.

Small-dollar fundraising has long existed, and in a variety of forms, such as door-to-door fundraising solicitations, direct mail solicitations, and solicitations made directly at campaign speeches and events. The rise of digital fundraising, however, made small-dollar donations a real, political force capable of meaningfully shaping elections. It’s a story well-chronicled in Ryan Grim’s 2019 account of the liberal-progressive political movement, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. Grim points to a MoveOn fundraising email from the final weeks of the 2002 midterms, in support of progressive Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone’s reelection campaign, as a major turning point. That single email shocked the political world when it pulled in $1.25 million for Wellstone—though the senator would tragically die in a plane crash just days later, and his replacement on the ticket, elder statesman and former vice president Walter Mondale, would go on to narrowly lose to Republican Norm Coleman.

Fleecing donors is not a sustainable way to build consistent, long-term support for any campaign or cause.

But it’s the 2004 primary candidacy of Howard Dean that’s generally regarded as having birthed the modern digital electoral campaign operation. Dean’s campaign leveraged the internet in a way that no other candidate had previously: he cultivated a national network of passionate grassroots supporters, enthused by his progressive policy proposals and staunch opposition to the Iraq War. In a departure from his primary competitors, Dean’s campaign staffed up with internet-savvy twenty-somethings and sunk real resources into developing online communities. These structures were built with the intention of converting digital enthusiasm into cash, as well as generating a groundswell of support for a broader political project that rejected the Bush presidency in favor of a real alternative: it was a vision for a country that would guarantee universal health care to all Americans, repeal Republican tax cuts that enriched the ultra-wealthy and large corporations, and above all, end the disastrous occupation of Iraq.

Grim recounts one fascinating anecdote from the Dean campaign, in which the campaign found itself lagging behind frontrunners John Kerry and John Edwards as a quarterly FEC deadline loomed. Both Kerry and Edwards were assumed to have raised $5 million apiece, while the Dean campaign hovered at around half that. Such a fundraising gap on an FEC report would be dangerous for any candidate: primary voters, as well as the commentariat, rely on these reports to assess campaign viability, and if Dean were to have his fundraising total doubled by multiple campaigns, it could spell the end of his campaign. In a last-ditch attempt to close the gap, and with just a few days to go before the reporting deadline, his campaign tried something different: it sent an email solicitation, but unlike previous email asks, the campaign stated how much money they had, how much they needed, and the consequences if they came up short (sound familiar?). The honesty of this gamble paid off, and the Dean campaign raised millions of dollars in the days that followed.

Dean’s primary campaign would ultimately flame out (before he could go on to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, etc. and take back the White House), but its strategic approach continues to reverberate two decades later. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign recruited digital staff from the Dean campaign, who went on to build an unprecedented digital program that played a vital role in powering Obama to victory. His 2008 campaign enjoyed incredible success from small-dollar donations as it obliterated grassroots fundraising records, a stark contrast to the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, who comfortably leaned on corporate money and wealthy donors.

By the time Obama ascended to the presidency, as Micah L. Sifry points out in The New Republic, his digital infrastructure boasted thirteen million email addresses, nearly four million donors, and two million active users of a platform called “My.BarackObama,” or “MyBO,” which helped activists organize local actions, connect with other supporters, and fundraise for the Obama campaign. The campaign initially intended to spin this infrastructure into a standalone organization, a grassroots army of Obama die-hards that could apply pressure on Congress to promote the Obama agenda. But, fearing a parallel liberal institution would divert fundraising—and cede control—from Democratic Party channels, party officials convinced the Obama team to kill the project, and instead turn over supporters’ information to the Democratic National Committee.

The DNC incorporated these email addresses into its existing digital system—but did virtually nothing else. The rabid enthusiasm of Obama’s campaign, that of millions of activists eager to organize their communities in support of Obama’s vision (many of whom would never identify as “Democrats” in the first place), was absorbed into a larger political infrastructure hostile to transformational change, where it promptly withered. The DNC wanted to harvest Obama’s digital ecosystem solely for donations, solidifying a belief that digital activation was relevant to fundraising alone. Things could have been different: What if the Obama team was able to mobilize that robust community throughout his presidency? What if the DNC didn’t collapse Obama’s unprecedented operation into a mere vehicle for quick campaign cash?

With only rare exceptions, the primary focus of any campaign or political organization’s digital operation is now fundraising—and to get that cash, campaigns on both sides of the aisle have undertaken an arms race of alarmist rhetoric. Like many trends of contemporary politics, this particular sort of messaging became entrenched in the wake of the 2016 election. Stunned by Donald Trump’s victory, tens of millions of terrified liberals across the country, prodded by emails brandishing jump-scare close-ups of Nancy Pelosi’s face, opened their wallets to oppose Trump and his Republican governing majorities.

The first major referendum of the Trump years was the special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional district, historically a GOP stronghold. The race matched Georgia’s former secretary of state, Republican Karen Handel, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a young, telegenic filmmaker and congressional staffer. It quickly became the most expensive House race to that point: over $50 million was spent. And while Ossoff lost by less than four percentage points, one of the big winners from his campaign was a digital consultancy named Mothership Strategies, which handled Ossoff’s email fundraising program. According to FEC disclosures, Mothership grossed almost $4 million off Ossoff’s campaign—even though it only lasted about six months from start to finish. The firm also handled email fundraising for Doug Jones, who won a Senate seat in deep-red Alabama later that year in a special election. Mothership reportedly earned nearly $7 million for their efforts to save the Republic.

In these and other campaigns, Mothership—founded in 2014 by three former Democratic party operatives, including two veterans of the DCCC’s digital fundraising team—honed their practice of wearing down grassroots donors through desperate, and frequently misleading, pleas for money. And for years, they’ve been rewarded handsomely for it: in the six years since the Ossoff campaign, the firm has assisted some of the most high-profile Democratic candidates and campaigns in politics. During the 2020 cycle, it raked in nearly $100 million—earning over $16 million from Jaime Harrison’s record-breaking Senate campaign alone—according to FEC reports.

The typical Mothership message is short and pithy, rarely more than one hundred words, nearly all of them garishly formatted. The tone is uniformly one of complete and utter dread—with subject lines such as “It’s over”; “We are abandoning Joe Biden”; “We lost”; “We’re choking back tears,” regardless of the political moment—to incentivize would-be donors to click, lest open-rates drop to a level at which email clients begin categorizing them as what they generally are: spam. There’s also a bizarre tendency to scold the recipient in an effort to shame them into donating: “Bad Democrats are ignoring this email! Make no mistake: If you don’t donate, McConnell WILL win! WE’LL WEEP IN DISGRACE!” one Mothership email from 2020 reads.

But it’s not just haphazardly formatted messages and borderline digital harassment (one Mothership client emailed me upwards of eleven times a day in the lead-up to Election Day 2020) that distinguish the Mothership formula—their work occasionally drifts into outright deceit. Their emails often use the “From” to dupe the recipient: one message from Stop Republicans PAC, an organization I’d never even heard of, sent an email with a “From” line labeled as “⚑ Flight Confirmed,” while the subject line included my email address followed by “Your flight confirmation-ZWCLXT 20NOV.” Of course, the email had nothing to do with a flight I was taking; it was a reference to Mike Pence flying to Atlanta to rally for Republicans in the 2020 Georgia Senate run-offs.

Mothership deploys many different versions of this same device in order to bait recipients into opening their emails. Sometimes it’s a request for an “interview” (one subject line reads: “Alex/Arvin Alaigh 1:1 @ Sun Nov 15, 2020 7:30pm – 8pm”; the from line reads: “📅 (1) Calendar Invite”); other times, it’s a subject line that just says something along the lines of “Our records show that you’re voting for Trump.” Tactics like these are designed to prop up open rates, which allows the firm to add new email addresses that they have gathered from other clients to a given campaign’s list. With subject lines like these, the rationale goes, these new recipients (who never opted into receiving messages from a given campaign) will be more likely to open these emails, and some day, donate.

The primary targets of these sorts of deceptions are not ostensibly tech-savvy Gen-X, millennial, or Gen-Z voters—it’s the ever-politically-active boomer. Mothership is a leader among Democratic consultants in scamming seniors out of their money: according to a New York Times report, “Of the top 10 Democratic groups with the oldest average age for refunded donors in California during the last election that refunded at least $75,000, all were Mothership clients.” It’s clear that the success of Mothership’s practices, in many ways, relies on the technological illiteracy of seniors—in addition to preying on their deep political anxieties. Not only is this an abhorrent way to treat people in a moral sense, fleecing donors is not a sustainable way to build consistent, long-term support for any campaign or cause.

“Would I use Mothership again? Yes,” one former client gushed to the Washington Post in 2019. And understandably so. When it comes to raising money, few if any firms match Mothership’s prowess. Due to their success, Mothership’s trademark practices have, in turn, been replicated by numerous other firms and campaigns. Sapphire Strategies is an example of another firm—used by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s campaign committee, as well as the DCCC—whose alarmism and dogged persistence bear a striking resemblance to the tone and tactics popularized by Mothership.

The standardization of this approach across the industry, however lucrative it may be in the short-term, has grim implications. The “churn-and-burn” approach to fundraising—that is, extracting as much money out of as many people as quickly as possible (and taking for granted a high degree of attrition from an email list)—has a finite limit. There will be a moment when there simply aren’t enough donors left who will respond to catastrophizing.

The challenge for any progressive movement is to reconfigure the role assumed by digital tools.

That’s to say nothing of the greater political stakes of bleeding a base dry, not only of its money but also its trust in politics. This trust erodes as constituents are admonished, manipulated, and battered, day in and day out, by emails proclaiming the latest faux crisis and presenting a donation as the primary solution. Many donors on the left are explicitly calling out this deranged communication style. A recent survey of political donors, sponsored by eight grassroots activist groups, reveals that 81 percent of respondents want less panic in emails/texts and more analysis and logic; 75 percent want fewer fundraising emails and texts. They’re not alone: Middle Seat Consulting, a progressive digital firm, recently published a guide to “ethical” email fundraising, describing how email programs can retain supporters’ trust by—shocker—being honest instead of deceitful. It’s a useful resource, to be sure, and should be required reading for any email fundraiser. It dovetails with the work of Micah Sifry, who writes of the risk of alienating the voters who power electoral (and non-electoral) victories. As he writes, “professional Democrats . . . live in a world apart from their activist base.”

But simply making emails less transactional—while a necessary step—can’t singlehandedly rescue digital campaigning from its dangerous trajectory. The challenge for any progressive movement is to reconfigure the role assumed by digital tools. As it stands, digital “connectivity”—whether over email, social media, or text—is the primary means for a campaign to communicate with its supporters. These tools are now all but exclusively leveraged to bombard supporters with donation solicitations, demands to “vote!,” and little else. So much of “politics,” in the day-to-day experience of the ordinary voter, has become that of fending off (i.e., ignoring) these frantic pleas.

A different approach to campaign building can do more than deliver eleven “WE’RE BEGGING YOU” emails per day. We can consider Bernie’s 2016 campaign, in some ways the spiritual (and strategic) successor to the grassroots-driven ethos of the Dean and Obama campaigns. Arguably the single most impressive fact about his 2016 campaign was the fact that it went toe-to-toe with the Clinton campaign in fundraising. When considering how much power the Clintons wielded over the Democratic Party orbit—its party leaders, its apparatchiks at every level, its big-money donors—it seems impossible that small-money, grassroots power could pose a legitimate threat to what was, at the time, the most powerful family in American politics.

But the Sanders campaign didn’t rely on negativity in its email and social media communications; instead, it advocated for a positive, expansive vision of what politics could be—and it resulted in widespread support. The campaign mobilized this enthusiasm into a massive volunteer apparatus—unseen since the Obama days—across the country that contacted tens of millions of voters, breaking through in a way that no one could have foreseen.

It’s worth reflecting on the roots of digital organizing and fundraising as we confront the necessity of reconfiguring this aspect of campaigning. What powered progressive political movements in the past wasn’t just a fear of Republican rule (or, for that matter, the fear of being labeled a “Bad Democrat” unless you “chip in” $5). It was the formation of ecosystems that empowered supporters to take an active role in democratic life; one that valued supporters as people, not ATMs.