WASHINGTON -- In September, a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC sent out an email that sought to tie Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Sanders campaign turned the attack around with a fundraising blast to his supporters that pulled in over $1.2 million in under 48 hours.
The senator's legion of donors might not have answered the call so loudly without the work of one vital piece of the Democratic Party's infrastructure: the fundraising conduit ActBlue.
ActBlue's website serves as the main fundraising platform for Sanders' presidential campaign and has helped him amass more small-dollar contributions at this point in the race than any previous candidate. But ActBlue didn't start with him.
The web portal was launched in 2004 as a nonprofit organization to build a bridge between small-dollar donors and the Democratic campaigns they wanted to support. Anyone can set up a page to raise money for such a candidate, and any Democratic candidate or committee can rely on the Somerville, Massachusetts-based site as its main contribution processor.
Over the past decade-plus, ActBlue has processed more than $850 million in donations for 11,000 candidates, running for offices from president to school board member, and for many party committees, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Each election cycle, the contributions flowing through the nonprofit and out to Democratic campaigns have increased.
"What they did for the online donor is akin to what the credit card did for people who like to buy things," said Anne Lewis, head of the digital consulting firm Anne Lewis Strategies, which works with Democratic candidates.
The goal has always been to "use technology to increase participation in politics," to make "the political process more democratic," and to help "Democratic campaigns win," said ActBlue Executive Director Erin Hill. "And so, our focus has always been how can we make it easier and better for small-dollar donors to participate in a meaningful way."
Beginning in 2014, ActBlue has been rolling out new features -- notably, ActBlue Express and Express Pass -- to make it much simpler for donors to give repeatedly.
Federal disclosure laws require campaigns to report the name, address, occupation and employer of the donor for each contribution. ActBlue Express allows donors to save that personal information in the ActBlue system so that they can simply click the donate button and choose how much they want to give the next time.
Express Pass takes saved donor information that's linked to a person's computer and, with the donor's permission, links it to that individual's mobile device as well.
These might seem like the kind of things any e-commerce site would do, but they're less common in the political realm. Even when individual campaigns implement such systems, all that information can be lost between elections. ActBlue is trying to build a permanent infrastructure for small-dollar donors.
"What happens a lot with campaigns is that there is a lot of innovation and a lot of excitement, and then, win or lose, the day after Election Day a lot of that gets lost," Hill said. "We continue from election to election to election. We store all of that information, and it means that Democratic campaigns begin and end and they can begin again. We're always going to be here with the most current tools. They don't have to reinvent the wheel. They don't have to start all over again."
As with Express Pass, ActBlue's recent focus has been on making it easier for individuals to give using mobile devices.
Such donations are on the rise. At this point in the 2014 election cycle, 15 percent of all donations through ActBlue came from mobile. That share has doubled to around 30 percent now, with mobile contributions peaking above 50 percent on high donation days. By next fall, ActBlue expects mobile donations to account for 50 percent or more of the contributions to the general election.
One hurdle for mobile donors, Hill noted, is that a lot of them are on 3G networks rather than the faster LTE network. Knowing this, ActBlue aims to operate very light web pages that load fast, so that frustrated donors won't leave the site.
"If you want small-dollar donors to participate, you have to respect their time," Hill said. "They have lots of other things going and we don't want to make them have to sit there and wait for a page to load."
ActBlue has made other smaller changes to ease the process. For instance, the organization saw that a large number of its users were retired. When filling out contribution forms, they had to type "retired" in both the employer and the occupation fields. So ActBlue added a box that asked if the user was retired. When checked, it fills in both fields automatically.
That one change, ActBlue said, led to a 4.7 percent increase in people finishing contribution forms.
More tweaks can be expected throughout the current election cycle. The sheer number of contributions and candidates using the platform enables quick testing to determine what changes may increase donations. Such changes are then rolled out to every candidate and committee using the website.
This kind of attention to the basic details has made ActBlue very popular within the Democratic ranks.
"The people who curate ActBlue have done an amazingly good job of taking their responsibility very seriously," Lewis said.
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