Money is pouring into campaign coffers ahead of the midterm elections this fall, particularly for many Democratic House candidates in districts the party is looking to flip in November.

And while the national political environment has been a boon for online fundraising programs, it raises some questions about the longer-term outlook. Is this sort of fundraising environment sustainable, and how much should digital strategists be thinking about long-term impacts? How conducive is the current state of play to cultivating and sustaining a healthy donor base?

C&E sat down with Democratic digital strategist and founder of Pacific Campaign House, Cheryl Hori to talk about what’s working when it comes to fundraising in 2018, and the longer-term effort to engage donors, particularly younger ones.    

C&E: We’ve seen enormous fundraising totals roll in for the second quarter, especially in a lot of House races. Is this a new normal and how do you sustain it?

Hori: I think it’s very likely that in the next 20ish years, if we are not actively cultivating new donors, that yes, this is going to fizzle out. For me, the majority of voters giving money to my clients are 55 plus. These are people with stable incomes who have either paid off their mortgages or are very close to having paid them off, and they have the resources to be giving money online. If we don’t start cultivating millennial donors, trying to get them to give online now, by the time they’re in a place to actually give money, if we haven’t done our due diligence in supporting them, they won’t. Starting to talk to them right now about why this is so important and so impactful, even if they are not giving money, is critical. Making them understand it’s something they can do to help make a difference will be really instrumental in making sure the digital space doesn’t fizzle out in the next couple of decades.  

C&E: So how do you get them to donate online in greater numbers?

Hori: If you ask a millennial for a hundred dollars to help elect a Senator, that’s going to be much harder than if you ask them to not get coffee once a week. So instead of spending money five times a week at Starbucks, how about $5 for helping your country? So first, it’s building that trust with them, meeting them where they are, both physically and on the issues they care about, and two, breaking down their impact in a way that’s realistic to them. Explaining to them while giving $20 a month may not seem like it would make a difference, if we have 10,000 millennials giving $20 a month, that really adds up.

C&E: What about engaging younger voters online and mobilizing them?  

Hori: What interests me, as a millennial, is that there are greater levels of distrust of the status quo than ever before. And there is a hunger to elect people who are not part of that political establishment. In terms of persuading Millennials, meet them where they are. So whether that’s physically meeting them where they are online by using the resources they use—Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook—or through Hulu ads and video game ads. It’s really about hitting them where they are, but also understanding emotionally where they are. Young people now are trying to pay off their student debt. They may never be able to afford to buy a house. So make sure you’re talking to them about the issues that matter to them. That will build some of the trust.

C&E: Back to the fundraising totals. You see a long shot like Beto O’Rourke in Texas raising enormous sums of money. Is there an argument that those national dollars may be better off in other races, particularly given the gains Democrats can make in ’18?

Hori: One of the things that’s so great about digital is you’re no longer restricted to what’s happening locally. If you see Connor Lamb in Pennsylvania, and it’s going to be close, somebody from California, New York, or even Texas might feel like their money makes more of a difference there than it would with their local candidates.  

C&E: So from where you sit, no concern over there being a ceiling to the money coming from small-dollar donors on the left?   

Hori: I think it speaks to a couple of things. One: how badly people want change. I don’t live in Texas, but I have a friend there who really wants Beto to win. There’s a huge appetite for people who will bring that change right now. And while I might not be able to go vote for him, it just helps me sleep a little bit better at night knowing that I can participate. Seeing where that money’s coming from, how many people are giving to things like that, it really speaks to the national appetite for change. Do I think it’s wasteful to spend money when they don’t have a chance? I think that’s a really hard question, in that if the money was coming from a larger committee or party and they were allocating money to candidates who are not going to win, I would say yes, absolutely. But I think what’s happening here is that money’s not coming from larger organizations; it’s coming from individuals. So I don’t know that I can say don’t put your $5 into that race because they may lose. I think what we can do in those situations is make sure the people who are running those campaigns are running them well.

C&E: We’ve heard concerns on the Democratic side over how committed, budget-wise, a lot of campaigns are to digital spend. What’s your take?

Hori: I do know on the digital front there is definitely a challenge. In so many of the states I’m working in, TV is king. In one state, they proposed a $100,000 digital budget, and said it would be the largest digital spend ever in that state. But spending $100,000 on a statewide campaign is really not an outrageous amount, and the reason they were so confident is that TV is king. I think that’s because there is that other side. The TV buyer, they’re giving away part of their revenue to digital, and that means they’re going to be taking a hit. In the industry itself, I think there are some internal politics there. But on the left, half the time we’re trying to figure out, is this a new thing that’s going to be trending for now and then disappear in two cycles? I think that we, as a party, need to acknowledge digital is not going anywhere. It is the most cost effective, reliable, easy way to measure if we’re reaching both voters and donors. We really need to lean into that, instead of relying on what has always worked and what we’ve always done. I think that’s really important going into 2020.

C&E: On the messaging front, how do you decide when to craft positive fundraising messaging and when to simply go negative?

Hori: It really depends on the digital program’s goal. If the goal is to raise as much money as humanly possible, as fast as possible, and there’s not so much of an emphasis on fostering that list for long-term use, then negative is totally the way to go. If that’s the goal, you want to be aggressive and really just crank out as much volume as you can, because you know that’s going to raise money fast. The downside there is people get tired of it. You get all of this negative news from TV, so you’re going to tune out. With excessive use of negative messaging, you can expect your list to turn over and you can expect people to unsubscribe more quickly. That’s the cost.

Now, on a lot of the campaigns I’ve worked on, it’s true that positive messaging often didn’t work as well. On the other hand, it’s important to show what the organization has done for the cause. If you are an LGBTQ rights protection organization, or an environmental protection group, and you’re not telling your readers what it is you’ve done that’s positive, they may view you as an organization that isn’t turning out results. People who are giving money, whether it’s a dollar or five dollars or one hundred dollars, they’re investing in you as an organization or as a candidate. So understand that if you can’t show results, there’s not a lot of reason for them to keep investing.

C&E: The FEC is looking at additional regulation when it comes to digital advertising, particularly disclaimers. On the creative side, are you worried about the impact of any rulemaking?

Hori: This is partially contingent on what the FEC actually ends up doing. In general, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have disclaimers. Part of the reason the Russia scandal was so impactful was because people were serving ads without any regulation. And there were ads out there that said, “Don’t have time to make it to the polls? That’s fine. Just text who you’re voting for to 595…” Those are clearly political ads that are being used to disfranchise voters.

Now, do I think if you have to slap a huge ‘Paid For By’ disclaimer button on a Facebook ad, on the creative itself, do I think that’s a good thing? I think what Facebook has already set up is more than fine. I also don’t think the political space should be the only one to which disclaimers like this are limited. There are a number of other Facebook ads for medical or health-related things that are also out there unregulated, and that’s just as dangerous. So I definitely think more transparency is better than less transparency. But depending on whether or not people will actually end up having to take a huge cut out of their ads with a ‘Paid For By’ label, that’s another conversation.

C&E: On the privacy front, California just approved some tough consumer data protections. What will be the impact for campaigns there once this goes into effect in 2020?

Hori: I think people should always know where their information lives. In an era where having your credit card stolen or having your identity stolen is far more common than 5 to 10 years ago, as a consumer I want to know where my information lives. I want to know that if I sign up for a new program or a new credit card, my information is going to be safe, and that it’s not going to be sold. From an ad buyer’s perspective, this can definitely make things trickier. Your job depends on having information from people who care about what you’re doing. If you’re looking to try to get people to care about saving the polar bears, but you can’t find any information on them, that makes your job a lot harder.

What this is going to do for ad buyers is it’s going to give them incentives to, instead of buying information, cultivate better relationships with people. That may not be the easy route, especially if you’re a large organization with money to burn. Taking that time to build your credibility and your following is going to be slower, and definitely harder than just paying for it, but in the long run, with organic growth, you’re going to see it’s going to be more meaningful. The people who are following you and donating and engaging are giving you that information up front.