Well, it turns out the Trump campaign bilked their own supporters out of millions of dollars. Using the GOP’s new small-dollar donor tool, WinRed, the campaign made all contributions default to monthly unless the giver checked a box to prevent the recurring donation. According to the New York Times, the Trump campaign accounted for as much as 3% of the all credit card complaints. They had to refund a total of $64.3 million to more than 530,000 people. 

The donations kept the campaign afloat when they were getting swamped by Democratic money. As the Times article states, “In effect, the money that Mr. Trump eventually had to refund amounted to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.” Grifters gonna grift. 

There’s a larger story here, though. Republicans have never understood low-dollar fundraising very well. After Democrats proved they could offset large contributions from corporate PACs with a multitude of small-donations donations from individuals, the GOP set out to understand how. They settled on ActBlue, the donation portal that supports Democrats.

Republicans believe that ActBlue is some nefarious network that generates donations and directs them to the proper candidates. Just last month, Senator Thom Tillis compared ActBlue donations to “dark money” from SuperPACs. A GOP consultant said, “It’s like a body of water with a dam, and the Democratic dam has got this big hole they can open and close and let water out.” Lindsey Graham demanded an investigation into the source of the low-dollar donations produced by ActBlue. 

After their loss in the 2018 midterms, Republicans set out to build their own small-dollar machine. They unveiled their new tool called WinRed before the 2020 cycle cranked up and hoped for similar results. Unfortunately, theirs didn’t work quite as well as the one Democrats had. To close the gap, they bilked their own supporters. 

What Republicans cannot seem to grasp is that ActBlue is only a tool that allows people to give more easily. The donors are what makes it powerful. Democrats have been grooming them since Howard Dean saw the power of low-dollar contributions to fuel his long-shot presidential campaign in 2004. Since then, they’ve been appealing directly to people for $5, $10, or $25 to help meet some fundraising goal or pay for some service or good. Believe me, I’ve been making these asks on behalf of campaigns for more than a decade.

While Republicans have relied on large corporations to fund their campaign operations, Democrats have groomed their base of activists, who are often younger and less affluent, to support candidates across the country. ActBlue makes it easier for them to give and find candidates to support, but the donors believe, in part, that they are combatting the dark money corporate donors that were unleashed by Citizens United and unchecked by Republican political leaders. It’s standard procedure now for Democratic candidates to eschew corporate PAC contributions. When they make that pledge, they are asking small-dollar donor to fill in the gap. 

Republicans are obsessed with a tool instead of the data. ActBlue is not that different than a spreadsheet or database. It makes work easier and faster, but it’s only as good as what’s put into it. And in this case, it’s the donors. 

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