Trump camp uses online gimmick to fuel donations into December
By Shane Goldmacher
The New York Times|
Oct 31, 2020 at 9:17 PM
President Donald Trump’s campaign is raising money for a prolonged political and legal fight long after Nov. 3 and recently began automatically checking a box to withdraw additional weekly contributions from online donors through mid-December — nearly six weeks after Election Day.
Predicting “FRAUD like you’ve never seen,” the language on Trump’s website opts contributors into making the weekly postelection donations “to ensure we have the resources to protect the results and keep fighting even after Election Day.” Users must proactively click to avoid making multiple contributions.
The unusual postelection revenue stream would help Trump pay off any bills that his campaign accumulates before Tuesday — a campaign spokesperson said no such debts had been incurred — and could help fund a lengthy legal fight if the results are contested.
“This race will be very close, and it is possible that multiple states will require recounts and potential additional spending from our campaign,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign. “The election process this year is under extraordinary circumstances, and we are also anticipating that Silicon Valley will attempt to interfere with our online fundraising efforts postelection.”
Democrats said automatically opting contributors into postelection giving was a misleading tactic.
“They’re inventing new deceptive tactics to essentially steal money from people,” said Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist with an expertise in fundraising. “They’re going completely and totally scorched earth on their own supporters. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
Murtaugh said that no one would receive a “recurring charge without their knowledge” and that donors could opt out of recurring contributions both before donating and afterward. “Three days before each recurring charge, donors are emailed a reminder that the charge is about to occur,” he said. “There is a one-click link inside this email for donors to cancel if they wish. Our process is extremely transparent.”
“When the recount or litigation process ends,” Murtaugh added, “the recurring payments will end.”
The extra donations are just the latest hyperaggressive tactic employed by the Trump operation as it struggles to keep up financially with Joe Biden’s campaign. On Friday, the campaign promised supporters that their contributions would be matched “1000%,” after months of ratcheting up the levels of matches that campaign experts said almost surely do not actually exist. (The Trump campaign declined to say if the matches were real; Murtaugh said only that it was a “common fundraising approach” used by both parties)
“Today in record-breaking achievements of grift,” Caitlin Mitchell, a top digital strategist for Biden, wrote mockingly on Twitter of the purported 1,000% match. The Biden campaign said it had never offered donation matches.
The Trump email, which had two flashing-light emoji in the subject line, was one of 21 that blitzed supporters' accounts Friday — nearly one per hour — almost all of which asked for money. For comparison, the Biden campaign sent eight emails Friday.
In the final stretch of the 2020 race, Trump is being dramatically outspent on the airwaves, and as of Oct. 14, his campaign treasury had dwindled to $43.6 million, with $1.2 million in debts. Biden’s campaign reported $162 million cash on hand that day.
Combined with party funds, Trump had about $224 million, compared with $335 million for Biden, but party funds cannot be used to pay for many key costs, including campaign personnel and most advertising costs beyond a strict limit. Since then, Trump’s campaign canceled a net total of about $19 million in reserved television ads, according to data from Advertising Analytics, and the Republican National Committee stepped in to pay for the ads instead, using the limited funds it can spend in coordination with the campaign.
Trump has taken to addressing the financial disadvantage directly at his rallies. “I could have been the greatest political fundraiser,” he said Saturday in Pennsylvania, saying he had avoided shaking down wealthy interests for more money.
“We have plenty,” he said. “You can only buy so many commercials.”
It has been a different message to his supporters online, where his campaign has cranked out more frequent and more intense cash solicitations.
The Twitter account @TrumpEmail, which has cataloged all of Trump’s email solicitations for nearly three years, provided The New York Times with access to its database, which shows Trump’s climbing number of monthly emails this year — from January (63) to May (159) to July (239) to September (330) and roughly 400 in October.
Many messages employ shaming tactics to prod backers into giving. “The President selected YOU to be a part of this exclusive group, so he was really surprised when we told him you STILL hadn’t stepped up,” read one recent email urging people to donate and activate a “2020 Trump Diamond Card.” Gold and platinum cards have also been dangled for donations.
Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster who previously worked in digital fundraising, said the Trump campaign’s digital marketing tactics mirrored Trump’s personality.
“The president doesn’t have a filter, and there aren’t a lot of restraints on what they’ll say or do from a fundraising standpoint either,” Ruffini said. He called the campaign an “optimization machine” designed to maximize revenue above all else.
“The matching inflation is a running joke,” Ruffini said of the promised phantom matches that have climbed from 500% in May to 600% in June, 700% in July and, occasionally, 900% — and now 1,000% in October.
Julia Rosen, a Democratic digital fundraising specialist, compared that tactic to “giving kids candy instead of their Wheaties”: a temporary sugar high followed by a crash. “If you start off offering donors matches, they like that, and it becomes a situation where then they’ll only give if you give them a match,” she said.
“They have optimized themselves into absurdity and parody,” she added of the Trump campaign.
Privately, some Republicans wonder if Trump’s campaign deployed such tactics far too early, exhausting a supporter list that had been considered one of its strongest assets. At this point, however, most see little downside to the most aggressive marketing tactics, arguing that the risk of turning off supporters was no worse than losing the election.
Trump’s campaign has used a tool created by WinRed, the donation-processing site, that automatically opts supporters into making additional donations for months, and it has generated millions of dollars, according to people familiar with the matter. As far back as June, the campaign had asked supporters to give a second donation timed to Trump’s birthday. The campaign announced a record-breaking $14 million online haul that day but did not mention that it had piled up promised contributions in advance.
ActBlue, the Democratic donation-processing site, began removing a feature that automatically opted donors into recurring donations from its platform earlier this year. A representative said that no candidates were now using that tool but declined further comment. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, however, still does use the opt-in tool for automatic monthly donations. The Biden campaign has directed some Facebook ads to existing donors specifically seeking to convert them to weekly and monthly contributors, and the landing pages after people click on those ads have the recurring donation option prechecked.
Trump’s advisers had once promised that he was building a digital “juggernaut,” but a groundswell of support for Biden has helped the Democratic challenger lap the incumbent financially since the summer.
The total hauls online via WinRed for Trump’s campaign itself and the Trump Make America Great Again committee, which he operates jointly with the RNC to raise small donations, rose only marginally from $91.1 million in July to $106.1 million in August to $118.5 million in September. At the same time, Biden’s online hauls in his equivalent committees exploded from $46 million in July to $191 million in August and $193 million in September.
And in the final stretch, Trump’s campaign is still spending heavily to raise money.
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The Trump Make America Great Again Committee spent $32 million as it raised $36.9 million in the first two weeks of October — a burn rate of nearly 87%, according to federal filings. Some of that advertising for donors did double duty mobilizing Trump’s base.
Murtaugh said a more “accurate view of fundraising” would include costs across the campaign, RNC and all their joint committees, which he said was 34% from Oct. 1 to Oct. 14, and that had shrunk to 25% since Oct. 15.
“It’s clear they are just trying to squeeze every penny out of this thing while they still can,” said Nellis, the Democratic strategist.