Causing a Stir on the Right: ‘Republicans Buy Lists; Democrats Build Them’

Online fundraising

My Twitter feed sparkled today with tweets, retweets and comments about my latest column for Campaigns & Elections, which talked about a fundamental difference between the ways Democrats and Republicans have historically built their email lists. Pivoting off a comment by a younger Republican fundraiser at the Campaigns & Elections CampaignTech East conference earlier this year, the piece explored the idea that Democrats have traditionally built their lists voter-by-voter and donor-by-donor, while Republicans have been more likely to purchase their supporters from other campaigns or from list brokers.

The distinction isn’t absolute, of course, and I noted in the piece that my spam filter keeps catching emails from Democratic campaigns I definitely did NOT sign up to follow this year. But despite individual bad actors on the Left, the majority of Democratic and Left-leaning advocacy organizations take care to respect their supporters, for instance by NOT treating their names and addresses as a commodity to be sold and resold. The same cannot be said about far too many in the Republican campaign world.

I tie the distinction to a cultural gap between the two parties, going back to the roots of the highly exploitative (and too-often fraudulent) Republican direct-mail operations in the 1970s. Democratic digital fundraisers, by contrast, tend to come out of a fundamentally different tradition, one where grassroots organizing is the norm. The piece argues that the best hope for Republicans to improve their down-ballot digital fundraising is for a new generation of staffers and organizers to take over and begin to treat their supporters as participants in the process, not just sources of cash.

The article is about as harsh as I could reasonably write for a nonpartisan publication, and I wondered about how it would be received on the Right. No need to worry — most of the comments have been supportive, and the piece obviously hit a nerve with exactly that cohort of younger staff and consultants I was talking about.

The Trump era has exposed dark practices and even darker opinions in the modern American conservative movement, and I suspect it have to be driven out of power and into the wilderness before it can be rebuilt. This new generation of conservatives will be the ones to do it, and I hope that the idea of treating your supporters with respect will be central to their approach. Otherwise, the manipulative mindset behind scam PACs, Fox News, Breitbart, Limbaugh and their ilk will win the day again, to the detriment of their movement — and our country.


Written by
Colin Delany
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