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How Republicans texted and emailed their way into a money problem

In the years after Donald Trump lost the presidency to Joe Biden, Trump sent so many emails and text messages asking for money that Republican consultants warned his mailing lists could become useless. The former president’s friends told him that they were being asked for too much, too often, and Trump himself ordered aides at one point to slow the solicitations. Some of his fans, pockets emptied, mailed handwritten letters apologizing for not being able to give more.

Now, as Trump and Biden prepare for a rematch, Trump’s vaunted small-dollar fundraising operation is not bringing in as much money as it once did.

In 2020, Trump and his fundraising committees raised a record $626.6 million from small-dollar donors, 35 percent more than Biden took in from that group.

But last year, Trump raised just $51 million from small donors, way down from the $119 million he registered in 2019 and only 18 percent more than Biden’s total. His small-dollar haul — which includes donations of $200 or less — was not nearly enough to offset Biden’s lead among major donors.

The Republican National Committee also raised much less money from small-dollar donors in 2023 than it had in 2019, contributing to budget problems for the party. Officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee were shocked by the low returns on their investment in the strategy ahead of the last midterm elections.

Trump advisers say that after a slow period, they are now raising $1 million a day online, and the campaign raised $10.6 million in donations last week from 280,000 digital donations. The multiple prosecutions he faces have re-energized his base, and his team expects that small-dollar fundraising numbers will spike ahead of his trial in New York next month.

Democrats and their allies also send plenty of fundraising emails, and some Democrats and their committees have seen their small-dollar fundraising fall in recent years, according to federal filings. Republicans also attribute that the downturn in small-dollar fundraising to the effects of inflation and many Americans’ fatigue with national politics.

More than two dozen people across the Trump campaign, Republican fundraising committees and private firms spoke to The Washington Post to discuss the decline in the Republican Party’s small-dollar fundraising. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

“The biggest problem in GOP fundraising is that we don’t treat donors well,” said John Hall, a Republican small-dollar fundraiser who runs the digital firm Apex Strategies. “Sending eight emails and texts a day that promise an artificial match, threaten to take away your GOP membership, or call you a traitor if you don’t donate doesn’t build a long-term relationship with donors.”

Small-dollar fundraising firms have warned some GOP clients to lower their expectations. When former vice president Mike Pence launched his presidential campaign, officials at Targeted Victory, a small-dollar digital firm, warned him that “returns were way down because of oversaturation,” according to Marc Short, his former chief of staff. Pence’s campaign struggled to raise small-dollar donations, and he dropped out long before voting began.

Short said other vendors offered similar warnings, and Pence continues to work with Targeted Victory.

“You had a new vehicle to raise money, but everyone kind of abused it,” Short said. “Its effectiveness wore out.”

During the 2020 campaign, Trump advisers would watch in real-time as money rolled in from small-dollar donors.

Trump’s team stared at their cellphones or screens at campaign headquarters as fundraising spiked or stalled in response to their latest pitches. People who worked on the Trump campaign described Gary Coby, then the campaign’s digital director, tracking the windfall carefully as scores of pitches, some of them misleading, went out, and sending out regular text messages updating the campaign.

When others would raise concerns about too many pitches going out, Coby would explain that they could send fewer fundraising solicitations, but they’d get less money. The campaign did not slow the pitches.

Partially fueled by Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, the campaign raised more than $100 million from small donors in the final weeks of 2020, much of which was spent on legal bills after the election. Few pitches did better than ones that purported to fight the results of the 2020 election.

After the riot on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump’s team stopped its small-dollar fundraising program for a short period. Federal prosecutors investigated the campaign’s fundraising methods, and sent subpoenas to some vendors. Trump advisers said the main vendor that sent out the pitches, Salesforce, dropped them as a client. Salesforce did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Trump’s team resumed sending emails after a few weeks, but donors weren’t giving like they once did. Trump was not in the news as much. Many were exhausted. Trump tried to keep the money train going by bombarding people with emails, and advisers rented his list to some other political candidates.

Trump’s success in 2020 led more candidates to want in. Nearly every Republican elected official signed on with one of the handful of firms, mostly based in Northern Virginia, that specialize in helping politicians persuade ordinary Americans to hand over their credit card details. One of the biggest such firms is Targeted Victory, which counts dozens of senators and members of Congress among its clients.

Targeted Victory, which is housed in a gleaming skyscraper in Arlington, hired about 140 people to take on an avalanche of new clients. In 2021, the company bused employees to New York for an elaborate Christmas party. Later, the company expanded onto two more floors of the tower, according to former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their former employer.

In an open-air bullpen, a team of writers, usually junior employees, crafted language designed to inspire Republican base voters to give money to candidates. The pitches that worked best included mentions of Trump being persecuted or prosecuted or coming under attack.

“The fact is that President Trump is the best digital fundraiser in the history of the party,” CEO Zac Moffatt said in an interview.

Other successful pitches focused on immigration or hot-button cultural issues or promised a matching donation, the former employees said. Promises of matching donations are often misleading, according to multiple Republican consultants who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the controversial tactic. Targeted Victory executives say they strongly discourage misleading donors about matching.

Elsewhere, the GOP small-dollar fundraising operation was showing signs of weakness.

In 2021, top advisers to Republican politicians across Washington held conference calls to discuss the precipitous decline in small-dollar fundraising. On at least one of the calls, Josh Holmes, an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), raised concerns that Republican donors were being asked for money too often, according to people who remembered the calls and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Trump’s fundraisers did not agree and said they wanted to continue pelting donors with texts and emails, one of the people said.

Top officials at the NRSC, which invested extensively in small-dollar fundraising during 2021, were disappointed by the results, former employees said. The committee suspended some of its small-dollar fundraising efforts months before the 2022 midterm election and ended the cycle about $20 million in debt — largely because the small-dollar fundraising numbers did not meet projections.

Democratic House and Senate candidates running for election in 2022 raised significantly more that year from small-dollar donors than Republicans did — $279 million to $212 million in total, according to federal filings.

“While the committee was impacted by the drop-off in low-dollar donations across the party, we withstood that hit better than the other committees because of our investment and will continue to see the investment pay off for election cycles to come,” a spokesman for the 2022 NRSC effort said.

The Republican National Committee also struggled. Its small-dollar fundraising campaigns for candidates other than Trump often flopped. One such message, a sweepstakes to meet Pence, raised less than $500, according to people familiar with the 2022 sweepstakes.

Trump’s name still helped bring in money from small-dollar donors. But his team was angry that so many candidates were using his picture and his words to raise money that did not go to him. At one point in 2022, Targeted Victory executives instructed their copywriting team to slow the Trump-focused pitches because the Trump team was litigious and was raising concerns about candidates using his name without permission, according to the former employees.

By early 2023, the small-dollar boom had slowed. Donors had been sent “too many messages that guilt them into donating,” or were “being duped” into donating to candidates they didn’t know their donations were supporting, said Hall, who was president at Targeted Victory until late 2022. Some donors were ending up on dozens of different lists and donating less to each candidate as a result, he added.

That January, Targeted Victory laid off around 100 people.

Too many people were trying to get money from the same donors, Moffatt said. These days, every candidate expects to be able to raise small-dollar donations.

“It’s easy to blame texts and emails, but people don’t want to state the obvious: There’s far more competition in the space,” Moffatt said. “As more races come on board, more people are competing. It used to be 50 people trying to talk to them; now it’s 150, even if the donors have grown 25 percent.”

Too many political consultants “are very comfortable going to the same donors over and over, then complain when it doesn’t work as well as it once did,” Moffatt added. “The idea that someone — no matter who they are — can hit a button, spin something up, and expect money to gush in overnight isn’t the current reality. The best candidates are the ones who invest in it and have their own unique group of donors.”

Changing how small-dollar firms make money would be “the best way to correct the oversending and overspending on campaigns,” Hall argued. Sometimes, small-dollar fundraising consultants get paid based on how many emails or texts they send out, creating an incentive for them to send as many as possible. Fundraising firms can also make big money renting out their lists. Other contracts allow consultants to keep a small percentage of every dollar they raise for a candidate.

“If to make a profit folks had to net money, far more campaigns would net money,” Hall said.

Trump has made changes to his small-dollar strategy as his rematch with Biden draws near. Susie Wiles, his de facto chief of staff, is now responsible for his small-dollar fundraising. Coby, the architect of his 2020 strategy, is no longer involved.

Wiles tested various strategies, including fewer emails, toggling the number of pitches based on the week and trying various vendors, according to people familiar with her methods. Trump cut ties with one major vendor less than a year ago, the people said, and Wiles has polled various Trump advisers about how to raise more money from small donors. At times, she described the process to others as frustrating, but she has expressed confidence in recent weeks that the situation is improving.

Some small-dollar donors stopped giving to the RNC as much. It brought in $35 million in small-dollar donations last year, down from $94 million in 2019 and only barely ahead of the Democratic National Committee.

In the first month of 2024, the DNC outraised the RNC among small-dollar donors, $4.1 million to $3.6 million, while the RNC outraised the DNC narrowly in February. The committee is poised to boost its small-dollar fundraising, co-chair Lara Trump said recently.

“Our digital online fundraising continues to skyrocket, our major donor investments are climbing, and Democrats are running scared of the fundraising prowess of President Trump,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said.

Trump advisers said they do not expect to have as much money as Biden and the Democrats this time, but will make use of Trump’s ability to secure media attention. They expect to post even stronger small-dollar numbers soon.

Trump and his team still send multiple pitches a day with headlines like “I want you to own this flag!” or “I signed this NEVER SURRENDER poster!” which offers donors a signed poster of Trump’s Georgia mug shot. On days when Trump is under attack or has said something particularly controversial, he usually raises more money, his people said. He is sometimes briefed on the fundraising numbers, advisers said.

These days, messages about his looming criminal trials and his promises to deport millions of immigrants perform better than anything else.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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