Feb 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP tensions boil over Trump's fundraising tactics

An illustration shows a red Trump baseball cap full of cash.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Donald Trump's spamming of Republican donors could kneecap party efforts to build a steady funding stream for future elections and compete with Democratic fundraising, top GOP officials are privately warning.

Why it matters: The former president's decision to bombard donors with numerous daily emails and texts is sucking up record sums. Four top GOP digital strategists tell Axios it's also imperiling efforts to build a sustainable, grassroots base of financial support for anyone not named Trump.

The big picture: Trump is raking in donations. His political vehicles, led by the group Save America, raised more than $51 million during the second half of 2021.

  • They also ended the year with more than $122 million in the bank, according to FEC reports.
  • Trump's small-dollar fundraising operation is the vanguard, driven by ceaseless emails and text messages hitting up his supporters for cash.

One veteran Republican digital strategist told Axios the effect, compared with the potency or engagement of other ex-presidents, is "something we've never had in the history of digital fundraising."

  • 22 cents of every dollar in donations processed through GOP payment processor WinRed last year went not to GOP midterm candidates but to two Trump committees: Save America and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, an Axios analysis of campaign finance records shows.
  • The two groups brought in more WinRed money than the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee — combined.
  • By comparison, top recipients of money raised through ActBlue, Democrats' WinRed counterpart, were the Democratic National Committee and the party's House and Senate campaign arms.

What we're hearing: Some of the strategists contacted by Axios credit the Trump team, especially digital director Gary Coby, for the intense focus on data and analytics.

Yet they identify three big risks:

  • Donor burnout, and diminishing returns from a flood of frantic emails and texts — not just from Trump, but also other candidates invoking his name. There's also a scenario in which Trump squats on hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than spending it on other Republicans.
  • The "quadrupling-down" approach that's proved effective for Trump may actually make it harder — and more expensive — for other Republicans to raise money online.
  • Trump's approach is spurring other campaigns to lean heavily on his brand in their own fundraising appeals. That keeps Trump essential not just to the Republican political brand but to its ability to raise money online.

Between the lines: These complaints are frequently discussed privately in GOP fundraising circles.

  • Nobody of stature wants to talk publicly, for fear of retribution — because Trump remains the most powerful man in Republican politics.
  • The four strategists spoke on condition of anonymity.

The other side: Trump's team and allies write off the criticism as jealous griping by less successful competitors.

They say he's bringing in millions of new donors, and that's a financial boon for the party.

  • "No one in the history of the Republican Party has done more to grow the donor pool at every level than President Donald J. Trump, something that pays untold dividends to Republican candidates and causes across the nation," Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich told Axios in a statement.
  • Budowich dismissed criticism from "the cowardly consultant-class" and "frauds who just can't deliver for their clients."
  • He also credited Trump's "brand, his leadership and his vision for America" for driving "historic fundraising hauls." His analysis: "Absent of President Trump, those dollars wouldn't be raised."

By the numbers: The Defending Democracy Together Institute, which tracks political email traffic, shows a spike since last July in daily Trump fundraising emails.

  • It counted an average of at least 10 Trump fundraising emails a day since October — Christmas was an exception, with just two that day — and more than 14 per day since the start of this year.
  • The data was culled from outreach to just one email inbox, a sampling that may not reflect the full array of Trump emails to all recipients.
Data: Defending Democracy Together Institute. Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

As problematic as the volume, Republican critics say, is the tone.

The appeals frequently rely on hard-sell tactics, such as questionable pledges that donations will be matched up to some multiple — tactics that have drawn the scrutiny of the Justice Department.

  • "It's a massive issue. ... The tactics and strategies they use are not sustainable," one strategist said.

The immense volume and frantic tone of Trump fundraising appeals are making it extremely difficult for other candidates seeking GOP small-dollar support to break through, operatives said.

  • "Conservative donors are getting six, 12, maybe even two dozen fundraising emails or text messages every single day. And the chances of them opening yours, let alone reading, clicking and donating, is pretty small to begin with," one said.
  • "If you include Trump in that, ... your competition for the inboxes of donors just goes through the roof. It's just it makes it so much more difficult to convert any of these people."

The imbalance is evident in data for WinRed, which handles Trump's online donations and the vast majority of the party's small-dollar fundraising.

It reported handling about $477 million in 2021 contributions — nearly one-fourth of which Axios' analysis found went to two Trump committees.

  • Operatives who spoke with Axios fretted that little of that money has yet made it back into the GOP political ecosystem.
  • An eye-catching detail from a recent New York Times story has been making the rounds among Republican consultants.
  • "The roughly $375,000 the PAC paid in Trump Tower rent was more than the total of $350,000 that Mr. Trump's group donated to the scores of federal and state-level political candidates he endorsed in 2021," it read.

The intrigue: Trump's fundraising operation also is making it more expensive for other Republicans to raise money online.

  • That's because campaigns routinely prospect for new donors and make up for recipient unsubscribes by renting third-party email lists.
  • But Trump's fundraising operation drives such huge revenue for the owners of the lists it rents that other campaigns are forced to pay higher premiums for access.

What they're saying: "If you're asking a list owner to take your copy rather than Donald Trump's copy," one GOP operative explained, "... you have to be willing to cut some sort of deal and take less money back in return in order for them to say, 'Alright, I won't send the Trump copy today, I'll send your copy.'"

  • "These are all business decisions, and I can't blame anybody for doing what's in their best interests. It's just — there is obviously a party interest here that is hurt by this."
  • Hikes in prospecting prices are coming as new and existing GOP groups pour money and resources into efforts to build a more sustainable base of grassroots financial support, potentially making those efforts more difficult.

Trump's immense popularity with the party's most committed donors has spurred other campaigns to lean heavily on his brand in their own fundraising appeals.

  • The NRSC and NRCC are constantly pegging their own fundraising appeals to Trump's name, pleading for donations to "save Trump's majority" and the like.
  • Individual candidates are following suit. The joint fundraising committee for Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has sent numerous emails barely mentioning Blackburn herself but asking recipients to pledge they'll join Trump's new social media site.
  • Candidates' own lists may include GOP donors who aren't Trump die-hards, but the incentives to lean into the Trump-centric approach are there because those die-hards are the most motivated and responsive.

What's next: All of this is building a Republican fundraising machine and ecosystem that's heavily reliant on one person: Donald Trump.

A potential 2024 Trump White House run could force the issue.

  • Republican party committees, which have already pledged neutrality in a potential 2024 GOP primary, would be severely limited in their use of Trump's name to raise money.
  • Trump will almost surely crack down on and publicly call out any candidate who uses his name in fundraising appeals without supporting his candidacy.

The bottom line: Republican candidates may be left with a choice: align with Trump or leave millions in small-dollar donations on the table.

Go deeper