On the last Tuesday in September, an important deadline loomed for the men and women who would be president. The Federal Election Commission requires those running for office to report how much their campaigns have raised each quarter, and the last-minute fundraising appeals that ensue often reach a dramatic pitch as politicians seek to raise a figure that proves they have staying power.
Starting at about 9:30 p.m. that evening, online donations through Sen. Bernie Sanders’s website, store and the ActBlue fundraising site reached the phenomenal clip of about two contributions per second. They stayed at that high and steady pace until the clock struck midnight. When all was said and done, online fundraising efforts like this helped the campaign raise a whopping $26 million for the quarter — just $2 million fewer than Democratic primary frontrunner and establishment favorite Hillary Clinton.
Sanders also reported more than 1 million contributions — more even than Barack Obama had pulled in during the early part of his groundbreaking 2008 presidential run. It was a major milestone for the Vermont senator’s Cinderella story campaign, proving he has both the voter base and the financial wherewithal to compete with Clinton.
If Sanders’s record-setting number of donors served as a wake-up call to establishment Democrats about the strength of the insurgent Sanders campaign, it was no surprise to those inside his operation.
Since May, a small guerilla-marketing team whose members have been part of some of the most successful insurgent campaigns in the Democratic Party have been working to translate grassroots enthusiasm for Sanders into dollars.
At its helm is Scott Goodstein, a former music marketer who made a living hyping bands like Korn prior to his political career. In 2007, after “drinking beers and talking” with Obama’s main digital strategist at the time, he and his friend, videographer Arun Chaudhary, were hired by the famously innovative campaign to help create a groundswell of support online and in local communities.
In 2009, after Obama’s election, Goodstein took everything he learned from the campaign and launched Revolution Messaging, bringing on a “lean-and-mean” group of digital marketing veterans to help. Tim Tagaris, who cut his teeth on Sen. Chris Murphy’s successful campaign against Republican Linda McMahon, and on Ned Lamont’s netroots-fueled fight against one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee and incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, came on as a partner. He hired Michael Whitney, who had worked for Howard Dean’s pioneering 2004 presidential campaign as well as the cause-and-petitions siteChange.org. Chaudhary joined up after leaving the White House, where he had been Obama’s first videographer.
Since July, Revolution Messaging has been tasked with overseeing social media, online fundraising, web design and digital advertising for Sanders, sending a steady stream of text messages, emails and issue-based ads urging supporters to donate or volunteer. The team also nurtures and helps grow the communities on Sanders’s already popular Facebook and Reddit pages.
“After seeing the immediate response the first few hours after [Sanders] said that he was running for president, nothing would surprise me,” Tagaris, who heads up the email fundraising team for Sanders, told Yahoo News after the third quarter fundraising numbers were revealed.
The effort is not all that different from the scrappy, ultra-efficient operation that Goodstein and many members of his current workforce ran for Obama’s campaign in 2008. But to equate the two campaigns is to overlook both the way Internet use has evolved over the past eight years, and the unique personality of Sanders as a candidate.
Since the 2008 election, the economy has migrated to Internet-based services, the mobile industry has exploded and a generation of young people weaned on the art of personal branding is more skeptical of pandering than ever. It’s these pivotal changes in the digital world and the people who live in it that explain Sanders’s appeal and the passionate response his campaign has been enjoying.