The big business of online politics: Buying your email address

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Cal Cunningham’s North Carolina Senate bid ended with a disappointing loss. But the Democrat left the 2020 campaign with a valuable asset after raising $51 million: his fundraising email list.

That list now belongs to Avalanche, an email acquisition service founded by Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist who was a senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. The newly formed company — seeded by Cunningham’s list, which cost $200,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings — will charge Democratic campaigns and progressive groups to send emails to its list of prized online donors, allowing those groups to solicit contributions and expand their own email programs.

Companies and groups like Avalanche are popping up to fill the gaping hole left by Facebook and Google’s prolonged political ad bans, which bar campaigns and political groups from running ads on their platforms to draw in small-dollar donors. By cutting off that pipeline to voters and potential supporters, the tech giants have set off a race to find new ways to reach those contributors, according to interviews with more than a dozen digital strategists. And one old-school fundraising tactic is regaining fresh traction: buying, renting and swapping email lists, tactics that have been in use for a decade but have become newly important — and, some expect, lucrative — in the world of online politicking.

“List buys skyrocketed as a percent of total [email] acquisition spending in 2020, and with Facebook and Google still locking us out, I expect it will take up an even larger share of the market this cycle,” said Nellis, who also leads Authentic Campaigns, a digital firm that is a separate company from Avalanche. “Back in 2012, we had two election cycles as evidence for how digital fundraising for political campaigns played out. Ten years later, we have [many] use cases to understand how people respond and react to digital and email programs.”

The resurgence of email list acquisition raises several concerns for political campaigns, strategists acknowledged. Since the practice relies on using preexisting donor lists others have already built, the same pool of small-dollar donors ends up getting a growing number of emails from different campaigns, raising the risk of donor fatigue. Campaigns renting lists are more likely to see their emails get caught in spam filters, lowering their worth. And where donor money actually goes is more opaque, governed by contracts between the list owners and the list renters that often aren’t disclosed to donors.

“It’s a limited ecosystem when everyone’s passing around the same names and selling them to each other,” said Julia Rosen, a Democratic digital strategist.

Consultants and digital strategists are scrambling to find new ways to keep their programs fresh, even as they invest in some back-to-basics tactics. Tim Tagaris, a Democratic digital strategist who served as a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run, echoed that there’s “definitely been a resurgence of list-rentals since Facebook’s ban went into effect.”

But Tagaris added that the crunch has also inspired new creativity: “Our North Star right now is to find alternate approaches.”

Strategists said they expect a surge in fundraising via text message, while other ad-selling platforms, like Verizon and AT&T, are also expected to see more fundraising traffic. Still others floated the possibility that online platforms apart from Facebook and Google may expand their political ad operations.

“That ad revenue is clearly there,” said Tatenda Musapatike, senior adviser at ACRONYM, a progressive digital group. “There’s going to be another platform that takes the risk on political fundraising.”

Another option for campaigns, with advertising curtailed on Facebook and Google, is to partner with social media influencers and draft off their followings, ranging from A-list celebrities to micro-influencers in certain communities.

“List swaps and email acquisition are going to remain hot, but the most effective way to reach new people online in 2021 may be these mid- to micro-influencers,” said Betsy Hoover, founder of Higher Ground Labs, a progressive technology incubator that’s dedicated $20 million in funding to start-ups for the 2022 election cycle. “I think influencer messaging will, to some extent, replace ad dollars spent on Facebook and Google.”

This week, Higher Ground Labs announced that it hoped to back companies innovating around “tools that allow campaigns and causes to reach their voters organically,” as well as “empowering progressive content creators.”

A similar effort to cultivate online grassroots donors is also springing up on the right. Former Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) on Tuesday launched a super PAC, National Victory Action Fund, alongside a handful of top Republican strategists. The goal is drive small-dollar donors directly to campaigns by experimenting with online fundraising techniques across email, texting and digital ads — a set-up made possible by not being an active campaign. The PAC is trying to confront a big problem for the party in recent elections, when Democratic candidates smashed fundraising records, but Republicans candidates lagged far behind, relying heavily on outside groups to fill the gap.

But National Victory Action Fund’s program starts with “a major piece off the board,” while Facebook and Google are still pausing ads, said Jeff Larson, a founding board member of NVAF. “You’ve got to fill it with something. And in many cases now, you’re seeing the same lists recirculated, so that becomes the challenge,” Larson continued, declining to specify how the super PAC planned to select races it would focus on.

“We’re going to spend time and resources to find new names, find new people,” Larson said. “It’s not necessarily easy, but it exists.”

Their model has already shown some success, directing more than $11 million from more than 100,000 individual donors to former GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Georgia Senate runoffs in January.

Some of the most powerful lists, though, aren’t currently on the market. Strategists said that former Democratic presidential candidates, who were incentivized to grow enormous donor lists to reach the primary debate stage, largely haven’t opened up their lists to rentals. Most are still running for office, “and if you want to do something in the future, you don’t want to give it out to everyone,” said one former senior presidential adviser, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.

Former President Donald Trump did offer up his donor list — arguably the most valuable GOP fundraising asset — for rent ahead of the 2018 election. But the RNC, which shares the email asset with the Trump campaign, confirmed that the committee does not currently rent it out.

Small-dollar donors also helped President Joe Biden to shatter fundraising records during the 2020 presidential campaign, but it’s not clear whether other candidates will be able to gain direct access to it — though Biden’s campaign sent emails encouraging donors to give to the Georgia Senate candidates during the runoff there. The DNC declined to comment on Biden’s donor list.

But there are still lingering worries among strategists in both parties that a return to heavy email list buying and renting could pollute the pool of dedicated, small-dollar donors, who will suddenly find themselves on dozens and dozens of email lists, some pleading for a “final notice” donation and “deadline” giving.

“One bad actor can deploy spammy tactics and ruin everything,” said a Democratic digital consultant, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. Another Republican digital consultant also said buying and renting others’ email lists is often “totally opaque” about pricing, presenting a challenge to campaigns. The consultant argued that it’s a “bad model for sustaining grassroots fundraising” — but one that’s “going to fill a hole” for now.

Jacob Garber, a Democratic digital strategist who worked on Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, said that leaning more heavily on email programs will require campaigns and groups to “build deeper relationships with their lists,” as it’s “so much easier to burn a list if all you are receiving is fundraising ask after ask as after ask,” he said.

“It’s going to be a lot more listening, and a lot less asking for funds,” Garber said.

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