The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A woman raised $170,000 for Elizabeth Warren by dangling gossip. The idea caught on.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at a rally Wednesday at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Charlotte Clymer was on her way home from drinks with a friend on Sunday night when her thoughts drifted to how much she’d hated the finale of a TV show she was once “super invested in.”

It seemed like a relatable moment. So Clymer, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, fired off a tweet to her 277,000 followers, describing how she still gets mad thinking about how the show ended. She left it unnamed, not wanting to risk hurting the writers’ feelings. But everyone kept asking.

Finally, Clymer threw out an unlikely proposition: If her followers raised $10,000 for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in the next hour and a half, she wrote, “I’ll reveal the name. But it has to be that much! If we hit $9,999, it’ll remain a secret forever.”

“I put it out on a whim, and it started blowing up,” Clymer said, adding that neither she nor the Human Rights Campaign have made formal endorsements. “Before I knew it, it went viral."

By midnight, they had not only hit the goal but exceeded it, raising $27,000. She named the show (“Girls”) and returned to Twitter on Monday night, half-jokingly, with another offer. She would reveal the senator with whom she’d had a “terrible interaction” — this time for $100,000 in donations to Warren (D-Mass.) by midnight Wednesday.

To Clymer’s eternal surprise, it worked. As the donations poured in, she rethought her offer, worried it might hurt Warren’s relationship with the mystery senator. Instead, she promised details of “bizarre phone conversations” she’d had with a presidential candidate. She also upped the goal to $200,000, after a majority of her followers approved of the increase in a poll, and later extended the deadline.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the two fundraisers had netted $171,000 within 72 hours, according to screenshots Clymer provided from the Democratic donation platform ActBlue. She said she had also received a call from Warren, thanking her and her followers for the contribution.

The unorthodox idea inspired some of Clymer’s followers to rack their minds for things they could dangle for contributions to favored candidates (all Warren, aside from one who sought contributions for Democrat Amy McGrath, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this year in Kentucky).

Rewire News legal analyst Imani Gandy came up with a recording of an old a cappella solo. Actress Heather Matarazzo offered to re-create a scene from “Welcome to the Dollhouse” in which she dances on a car. Attorney Elizabeth McLaughlin, the McGrath supporter, promised to share details of her tattoo.

As online fundraising becomes essential for campaigns to succeed, it’s “an interesting way for sort-of-influential accounts to mobilize their supporters for causes that they support,” said Republican strategist Eric Wilson, who was digital director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run.

But he said it also had echoes of age-old money-raising strategies.

“It’s a new twist on kind of an old idea, really,” he said. “It’s person-to-person, so it’s based on relationships, which is exactly how traditional fundraisers work.”

The spinoff campaigns, launched by accounts that, like Clymer’s, carry large followings, had varying degrees of success.

McLaughlin wrote on Twitter that she hit her $10,000 goal; in return, she posted the story behind the tattoo she got after a rough stretch in her life. Gandy, who set the price for her solo at $100,000 (“Yeah, it’s a lot, but I’m kind of shy,” she wrote), instead began posting a video heaping praise on the most recent donor after every $5,000. She had made four videos by Wednesday afternoon, but it appeared she would get to keep her solo to herself.

Matarazzo, meanwhile, tweeted that she was “gonna start my pre-dance stretches.”

Clymer likened the accidental fundraising phenomenon to viral tweets posing questions about celebrity interactions or embarrassing childhood memories. Maybe it worked because it was fun and collaborative in an election cycle that has often been characterized by division, she said. Maybe supporters of other candidates would try something similar.

“The online world is, I think, driven by inside jokes,” she said. “A meme is just an inside joke everyone knows about. When people can feel a part of something, it really makes them want to effect change.”

Wednesday night, she had not hit the $200,000 she wanted for the phone-call gossip. But she was thinking of pushing back the deadline again, just to keep it going.

Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

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