Exclusive: Iowa governor's campaign opts donors into recurring contributions

Governor Kim Reynolds’ campaign is using pre-checked boxes for online fundraising to drive supporters toward recurring monthly contributions as well as additional one-time gifts.

The donation pages, associated with Facebook and Twitter posts bashing President Joe Biden’s policies, recall “aggressive” tactics President Donald Trump’s campaign used last year. As Shane Goldmacher reported for the New York Times earlier this month, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee used pre-checked boxes to generate record-setting online fundraising in the summer and fall of 2020, followed by an unprecedented number of refunds to donors who felt duped.

Reynolds campaign representatives did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about the practice.

Like many campaigns, the Reynolds-Gregg operation often uses surveys or petitions to entice supporters to click through to a website containing a fundraising pitch. A tweet and Facebook post from April 9 declared, “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are failing to lead at our southern border! Let me know if you agree?”

Clicking through led to a page that prompted the supporter to provide contact information and a letter grade for the president’s border response. Completing that form led the user to this page.

I cropped this photo to make it easier to read the words next to the pre-checked boxes, which agree to “Make this a monthly recurring donation” and to contribute an additional amount “automatically” on April 15.

In his must-read New York Times article on “How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations,” Goldmacher reported that the pre-filled check box “first appeared on Mr. Trump’s online donation form” on the WinRed platform around March 2020. He linked to a page preserved on the Wayback Machine, which looks like this:

Goldmacher also reported,

By June, the campaign and the R.N.C. were experimenting with a second prechecked box, to default donors into making an additional contribution — called the money bomb. An early test arrived in the run-up to Mr. Trump’s birthday, June 14. The results were tantalizing: That date, a seemingly random Sunday, became the biggest day for online donations in the campaign’s history. […]

The two prechecked yellow boxes would be a fixture for the rest of the campaign. And so would a much larger volume of refunds.

Here’s how that first “money bomb” box appeared:

I emailed the Reynolds-Gregg campaign on April 12 and again the following day to ask when they started making recurring donations the default option on some fundraising forms. At this writing, no one has replied, but I will update this post as needed.

The page on the Reynolds-Gregg site where supporters could “rate Biden’s response” to the “border crisis” was taken down sometime on April 13, though the “thank you for rating Biden” page (with pre-checked recurring donation boxes) remained functional. Facebook’s library indicates the ad campaign highlighting immigration policy had run its scheduled course, from April 9 to April 12. Still, I wondered whether campaign staff might have removed the page after rethinking their approach.

The answer came at 5:00 pm today, when new posts appeared on the governor’s political Twitter account and Facebook page, asking supporters to “send a message” regarding Biden’s so-called “blue state bailouts.”

Clicking the link takes you to a page where you can sign a petition:

Submitting the petition leads to a page where boxes for recurring monthly donations and an additional gift on April 15 are pre-checked.

Donors who don’t uncheck those yellow boxes will have the amount they selected taken from their account again on April 15, and again each month until they opt out.

Incidentally, the main donation page linked from the Reynolds-Gregg campaign website does not have the monthly recurring donation pre-checked.

Biden campaign officials told Goldmacher “they rarely used prechecked boxes to automatically have donations recur monthly or weekly; the exception was on landing pages where advertisements and emails had explicitly asked supporters to become repeat donors.”

I searched the ActBlue fundraising pages for many Iowa Democratic politicians and did not find any with a recurring donation selected as the default option. Screenshots from several of those pages are enclosed below. According to a former candidate who has used ActBlue, the leading fundraising platform for Democrats doesn’t allow campaigns to set donations to recurring. Donors must be given the choice to opt in. CLARIFICATION: Another person with experience using ActBlue says the platform automatically has the one-time donation option checked when a new form is created. However, an existing campaign could edit that page to pre-select the recurring donation. I have not seen that as the default option on any Iowa candidate’s ActBlue page but would welcome tips from readers who have found examples.

UPDATE: Shawna Anderson shared this screen capture from April 8, which shows recurring donation boxes pre-checked.

To clarify, donors who don’t want to commit to more than one contribution to the Reynolds campaign can uncheck the recurring donation authorizations, if they notice them. Here’s an example of how one page looks after I manually unchecked those boxes.

LATER UPDATE: The Reynolds campaign has revised the form so that the “money bomb” automatic contribution will occur on April 30. Here’s what I saw after I clicked through from this tweet on April 18 and submitted my contact information (along with a letter grade for Biden’s border response):

APRIL 30 UPDATE: The Reynolds campaign has changed the “money bomb” date to May 15. Here’s how the page appears when accessed through a phone.

Have you seen other Iowa candidates or elected officials use a pre-checked box for repeat contributions on their fundraising pages? Please contact Laura Belin confidentially with details.

Appendix: From the ActBlue donation page for Rob Sand, who is considering running for governor, for U.S. Senate, or for re-election as state auditor in 2022

From the page for U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, who is considering running for Senate, governor, or Iowa’s third Congressional district in 2022:

From the page for Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard:

From the page for State Senator Liz Mathis, whom some Iowa Democrats would like to recruit as a candidate for statewide office:

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin