Rob Miller knows how two words can translate into nearly $1 million.
A Democratic candidate for a South Carolina seat in the House of Representatives, Miller's campaign became a national issue when he was no longer just another blue candidate in a red state but instead the answer to sitting Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson. Not long after Wilson famously heckled President Barack Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress, Miller started getting serious support through ActBlue's website.
By mid-November 2009, Miller had raised nearly $1 million through ActBlue alone.
ActBlue co-founder Matt DeBergalis says his organization, a political action committee, has become a go-to fundraising solution for Democratic candidates and the people who want to get them elected. Since it was formed in 2004, ActBlue has facilitated $127 million for Democratic candidates and organization at all levels, from the POTUS to the statehouse, the company says. ActBlue tried out offering fundraising for some local races, and would like to expand in that direction. On its website, ActBlue.com, anyone can create a profile, establish a list of preferred Democratic candidates, and raise money for politicians as high-profile as Grayson or as local as a hopeful for town council.
ActBlue is not like other service providers — in fact, DeBergalis says, he tries very hard not to think of his organization as a vendor. It's a political action committee at the federal level tied to committees in 20-some-odd states, a conduit for like-minded people to raise money for the candidates of their choice.
In ActBlue's case, the PAC happily facilitates donations to any Democratic candidate, or, for often nonpartisan municipal-level races, candidates of a similar liberal bent.
ActBlue provides expertise to do things like train fundraisers and campaigns in how to use the website. Just because it's a PAC doesn't mean the organization gets no money — ActBlue solicits tips from donors and collects a percentage of each donation from the campaigns getting the money. But most of that percentage goes to paying the credit card companies for processing transactions, said DeBergalis.
The exact logistics of how the money gets from donors to campaigns varies from state to state, depending on the local laws and regulations, but the gist of it is this: Users on ActBlue's website, be they individuals or representatives of an organization or campaign, set up customized pages for their candidate or group of candidates and make use of ActBlue's tools to drum up people willing to donate — or go collect donors on their own. In just a few button clicks, donors give money online, and ActBlue provides an open API and other widgets that users or campaigns can use to track and publicize the progress of the fundraising drive. Though the money goes from the donor to ActBlue to the campaign committees or candidates, DeBergalis says that on campaign disclosure forms, the donations are listed as coming straight from the people who gave online.
"ActBlue is a federal PAC," he says. "We collect funds from individual donors, they are earmarked for particular recipients ... essentially those are all treated as individual contributions. It just happens to come through a PAC."
He said ActBlue would show up on a campaign disclosure report in a memo entry, for example.
DeBergalis says the rules for operating across states are complex and often frustrating, and that's the point. ActBlue deals with compliance so that donors need not do so.
"We worry about that, and we could spend hours working through the legal framework for each state we're in," he said. "But the key point is that because we've done that ... the people we raise money for don't have to worry about it."
Part of ActBlue's mission is to make sure the all the complexity stays behind the user interface — DeBergalis wants his website to stay drop-dead easy. He says the company will focus more on ease of use than on adding feature upon feature. Instead, third parties can use an API to make feature-rich, ActBlue-driven applications — like the app for a money bomb for Rep. Alan Grayson, a Flash widget that included the total dollar amount raised so far (drawn from ActBlue.com) and the latest donor (also drawn from ActBlue.com).
ActBlue does have built-in tools to e-mail friends and send out invitations to fundraising events, however.
ActBlue also has a very high level of integration with Salsa software.
- ActBlue brought in over $350,000 through various groups for the upset victory of 2009 congressional candidate Bill Owens (D-NY), who went on to win what was for decades a moderate Republican seat in generally conservative upstate New York.
- Rep. Alan Grayson has received hundreds of thousands of dollars through ActBlue. The week before election day in November 2009, conservatives in the Florida Democrat's district created a fundraising committee to unseat him the next year. His campaign answered back days later by announcing that it had raised over $500,000 in a single fundraising drive, a large amount of that through ActBlue. As of the following week, according to OpenSecrets.org, his war chest contained nearly $650,000; ActBlue reported $163,000 coming to Grayson through a fundraising page set up specifically for that money bomb and over $400,000 in total.
The added benefit ActBlue brings to campaigns is buzz, DeBergalis says. Because ActBlue cash is easily tracked online and because the top donation recipients in a given week have pride of place on the PAC's website, fundraising through ActBlue can grab media attention.
"I think campaigns have found that when you raise money on ActBlue, it's public, and when it's public there's a story that comes out of it," said DeBergalis. "A dollar raised publicly is far more valuable than a dollar raised privately."
The PAC serves two communities: Donors and campaigns.
"For both communities, the basic approach to ActBlue is the same," says DeBergalis. "Anyone can come to the site. Anyone can build a fundraising page. Anyone can start raising money."
Authorized campaign committees often turn out to be the biggest fundraisers, but the process is open to everyone with a Democratic candidate to back. The only added part of the experience for campaigns is a portion of the site dedicated to compliance reporting.
Recipients see a 3.95-percent fee on each donation, which includes credit card processing fees; donors may give an optional five- to ten-percent "tip" to ActBlue per donation
Recipients include Rep.-elect Bill Owens (D-NY), U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), and No on 1/Protect Maine Equality