Online political fundraising: Once earnest, now dubious

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“By 2010, what was [once] used as a tool to disrupt the establishment was starting to be used as a tool to steal money from people, to grift, to drive both parties towards the extremes, particularly the Republican Party,” says Tim Miller, author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell.” Photo by Shutterstock.

You can’t escape election fundraising messages. Some are innocuous, asking for a small dollar donation. Others are more outlandish, trying to guilt you for not donating enough or make absurd promises about tripling or quadrupling your contribution. And according to political writer Tim Miller, the fundraising is getting worse, “dragging us to hell” with emails and texts. 

Online fundraising can be traced back to the early 2000s, with John McCain and Howard Dean.

“There was just this feeling that if you're funded by big corporations, that's bad, and that's establishment, and that's corrupt. And if you're funded by the people, that is an unadulterated good and that we want campaigns that start that but to do that. There was an element of that at the start, there was some earnestness to it,” Miller explains.

But he says that using new tools, such as email and texts, quickly went from a cause to a racket. 

“By 2010, what was [once] used as a tool to disrupt the establishment was starting to be used as a tool to steal money from people to grift, to drive both parties towards the extremes, particularly the Republican Party,” he says. “Anyone who's politically engaged, at least, is bombarded by these texts that are full of lies, hyperbole, exaggerations, guilt trips, and it's not doing anything to advance the dialogue.”

Former President Barack Obama successfully used online fundraising to defeat Hillary Clinton and eventually John McCain in 2008. In 2010, Congressman Joe Wilson used the same method to raise $2 million in 12 days — more than he had ever raised during that campaign. Miller says he did it by monopolizing an incident the year before where he publically called Obama a liar during a speech to the joint session of Congress. 

Other politicians took note.

“This compounded over time, where people realized … rather than inspiring people like Obama did, a much easier way to raise all this online money is to just tear down our enemies, be performative, say the most outlandish things.” 

Donald Trump was the key turning point, Miller says. Because he didn’t have enough “big dollar donors,” he turned to Facebook ads, where his team shared lies and off-the-wheel conspiracy theories. 

“For the first time, now Republicans are bringing in more money than the Democrats online because Trump was this tool that they could use to reach voters who were so excited and engaged by his gross attacks on the left, and his fantastical conspiracy mongering that they were willing to chip in that kind of money. And so over time, Trump becomes this vessel that every Republican campaign uses.” 

Miller says this is also how they fundraised for the Stop the Steal movement. 

“Look, I don't want to sound like people are dumb, and I'm not insulting the voters. But if you keep getting texts or emails every day saying, ‘The country is being stolen from you. The election is being stolen from you. We really won.’ And it says they're from Donald Trump. It says they're from people that you respect. We shouldn't be surprised that people really took that seriously and started to believe it.”

But Miller points out that Republicans aren’t the only ones who use this type of hyperbole and fearmongering. 

“How is it ethical to tell people you're going to do that? Saying that if you don't give 10 bucks today, that Trump's gonna come back and take over, and the democracy is in threat?” Miller points out. “This sort of hyperbole this has an impact on people. People seeing this all the time, some of them are gonna get radicalized by it. … It’s exacerbating our polarization, and some of it's just frankly not true.” 

Democrats have also instituted a system of giving donor dollars to candidates who need support, including those in swing states. Miller says that includes Marcus Flowers, who’s running against Marjorie Taylor Green. 

“He has no chance to win. That's the district that Trump won by like 40 points. He's raised $10 million. Why? Because he sends out these emails and texts and these tweets talking about how ‘I'm the one who's going to take down Marjorie Taylor Greene.’ And so the money is being allocated in ways that aren't actually helping Democrats. It's helping these grifty candidates.” 

While there is a concerted effort to get the fundraising dollars to candidates who might actually have a chance, Miller says it’s hard to fight voters’ strong political feelings. 

“Even though there are these earnest organizing efforts on both sides of the left and the right to raise money for the better candidates … [who are] more likely to get things done when they get in Congress instead of just grandstand, even pooling together resources, it's hard for those groups to compete against this visceral emotional response that the more grifty candidates get,” Miller says. 

Now, he says a multi-pronged solution needs to be made. That includes designing new campaign finance laws that can institute new guardrails, as well as creating more awareness around how and where fundraising money goes. 



  • Tim Miller - writer at The Bulwark, author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell” - @Timodc