Tag Archives: political fundraising

A Remedy? Or A Different Disease?

There has to be a better way to finance election campaigns.

The relief I felt after the just-concluded midterm election reflected two realities: the predicted Red wave failed to materialize, and I got my email inbox back. (Mostly.) I know I was not the only person being inundated with dire warnings, announcements of a three or four time fundraising “match,” and breathlessly reported one percent polling spreads–usually featuring bright colors and huge headlines.

And all–all!–asking for money.

I don’t know who those insistent, repetitive emails were supposed to persuade. They sure didn’t make me want to send them any money. (In some cases, they made me regret the small amounts I had contributed.)

When Howard Dean first demonstrated that the internet could be employed to encourage small donations, I was thrilled. When Obama raised zillions of dollars in small increments, I  thought the days of depending on political fat cats was over. Since no candidate could be “bought” for these small contributions, I counted this as a win for democracy.

It turns out to be more complicated than that.

Small dollar fundraising did indeed reduce political reliance on the “usual suspects”–the big money donors. But. (You knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?) This approach to fundraising has produced different–but equally troubling– negative consequences, and those negatives go far beyond the annoying assaults on our inboxes.

In a recent New York Times discussion between a liberal and a conservative campaign strategist, both opined that reliance on small-dollar donations is doing more harm than good.

The conservative strategist, Tim Miller, explained the problem: when McCain-Feingold banned unlimited, unregulated contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals, the fundraising focus turned to internet campaigns aimed at small donors.  That created some very perverse incentives.

I think that there were some nice sentiments about wanting to get corruption out of the system, limit the amount of money that bigger donors can give to candidates. But in doing so, campaigns weren’t going to decide to start spending less money. So they had to come up with other means in which to raise money. And it created a couple of scourges.

One, it just made fundraising the central activity for most politicians. And a lot of their time is spent around fundraising. I think that there are some pernicious side effects to that.

But it also created some negative incentives. I think one of them that I get into in the article is that what we saw very quickly, beginning with Joe Wilson, when he shouted, you lie, at Barack Obama during a joint address to Congress and then realized that he could raise a ton of money. Within 12 days, he raised more money sending out appeals to all the conservative lists he could buy than he’d raised in his entire campaign before that. Very quickly, then, there were a lot of imitators who realized that all of a sudden, they could raise big gloms of cash by being obnoxious and shouting things about the people they hate.

And I think that as a result of the decreased power, maybe the well-intentioned decreased power of bigger givers, politicians were then incentivized to do everything they could to get small-dollar money.

And usually — not entirely — that has tended to be saying things that are inflammatory, doing things that are going to get people to retweet you and post you on Facebook, spreading conspiracies, spreading mistruths. And so it has created just a different type of grift and a different type of corruption rather than the old company X gives you 20 grand in the hopes that you kill amendment Y.

When we decry contemporary political polarization, we need to recognize the part played by internet fundraising. As Miller pointed out, lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene have become massively successful fundraisers by saying insane things, followed by “an email about how the left wants to cancel her.”

The liberal strategist, Micah Sifry, agreed.

I think the problem is that we have a unhealed wound in this country that dates back to the Civil War and that we have had recurring cycles where opportunistic politicians decide to feed on the prejudices and on the warped beliefs of people who think that this was supposed to always be a white Christian country, and then use that to power their political careers.

The internet now enables some people like Marjorie Taylor Greene to self-finance, as it were, because she doesn’t have to worry if every Fortune 500 company in the country decides to stop donating money to her. So I think that there’s a deeper problem, which is, why do we have 30 percent of the population that wants this insanity and will fund politicians who give it to them?

Good question….


Money Money Money…

When Howard Dean first demonstrated an ability to fundraise over the Internet, I was thrilled. I saw all those small donations displacing the influence of the “fat cats” upon whom political figures had long depended. As time has passed–and as I have noted in recent posts–it appeared that my enthusiasm was premature. Successful candidates who had previously granted access to lobbyists and big donors now pander to the ideologically rigid, nuance-free extremes of their parties’ bases.

Back when I ran for Congress, the conventional political wisdom about fundraising saw political contributions not just as a way to pay for expensive television and direct mail efforts, but as an indicator of support. People who could raise respectable amounts–especially if those contributions came in early in the campaign–were seen to be more viable than candidates who struggled to raise money.

As we all know, some things have changed. Television and direct mail are far less important than less-expensive social media communications, for example. Other things haven’t: the importance of name recognition (the reason “celebrity” candidates with little or no government experience have a head start), and the still-potent belief that raising lots of money means the candidate has lots of grass-roots support.

And that brings me to an interesting story from ProPublica, about how Josh Hawley and Marjorie Taylor Green “juiced” their numbers using tactics that gave them the ability to claim grassroots support, and–not so incidentally– made shadowy consultants rich.

Two of the leading Republican firebrands in Congress touted big fundraising hauls as a show of grassroots support for their high-profile stands against accepting the 2020 election results.

But new financial disclosures show that Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., relied on an email marketing vendor that takes as much as 80 cents on the dollar. That means their headline-grabbing numbers were more the product of expensively soliciting hardcore Republicans than an organic groundswell of far-reaching support.

Both Hawley and Greene touted their big totals as evidence of widespread support for their extreme positions. Pro Publica’s reporters begged to differ, pointing out that both had paid unusually high sums to rent a fundraising list from a company called LGM Consulting Group, which charges as much as 80% of the funds generated through its list.

LGM appears to be the consultant of choice for crazy candidates–the company fundraises for Lauren Boebert, among other far-right “stars” and in 2020, the firm’s clients included then-Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who lost the Georgia Senate primary; Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old congressman from North Carolina who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally; and Laura Loomer, a far-right internet personality who calls herself a “proud Islamophobe” and lost a run for a Florida congressional seat.

As the report notes, the rise of email fundraising has proved irresistible to several less-than-scrupulous marketing consultants, and has facilitated their ability to profit handsomely.

Hawley’s and Greene’s list rentals show how politicians can pad their fundraising figures — if they’re willing to pay for it. There’s scant evidence that fundraising success represents broad popular support for a politician outside the narrow slice of Americans who make political contributions, and many of the people on the rented mailing lists may not have been constituents of Hawley’s or Greene’s. Still, the money is real, and the perception of fundraising star power is its own kind of success in Washington….

Political professionals have gotten more sophisticated about efficiently converting online outrage into campaign cash. At the same time, candidates who court controversy may increasingly rely on rage-fueled online fundraising as more traditional donors freeze them out. In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Hawley lost the support of some big donors, and major companies such as AT&T and Honeywell pledged to withhold donations from lawmakers who objected to the Electoral College vote.

“The news cycle that emerges out of controversial behavior by a candidate is like a strong gust of wind, and these mechanisms like list-building are the equivalent of sails,” said Eric Wilson, a digital strategist who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “For candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley, who have largely been shunned by traditional corporate donors who are frequently the mainstays for elected officials, especially in off years, they have no choice but to pursue grassroots fundraising. And in order for that to work, they have to continue to make more noise. It is a feedback loop in that regard.”

There doesn’t seem to be an answer to the multiple dilemmas posed by money in politics…..


I Hate It When My Husband Is Right…

A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer Rubin had an unsettling column in the Washington Post.

She was considering a recommendation issued by the nonpartisan Unite America Institute. The organization had been analyzing the “root causes, effects, and potential solutions to political polarization and partisanship,” and determined that fixing our political system requires eliminating partisan primaries. Instead, the Institute favors nonpartisan contests decided by “immediate runoffs,” sometimes called ranked-choice voting.

This recommendation rankled, because it echoed an argument my husband has made for years–one with which I’ve largely disagreed. He points to the (well-documented) fact  that primary election voters–right or left– are far more ideological than general election voters, and that the slates of candidates we used to get, chosen by those men in smoke-filled rooms, tended to be far more reasonable and appealing to the broad middle, or to the less doctrinaire voters.

I would respond to his position with a defense of “more democracy” represented by an additional electoral choice. I would also point out that primary voters were likely more ideological because they were more interested in/ informed about the political process; and I’d argue that what we need to do is engage and educate more people, not eliminate an election.

The Unite America Institute agrees with my husband.

“Voters who participate in primary elections are often unrepresentative of both their own party, and especially the electorate as a whole, producing similarly unrepresentative outcomes in the candidates they elect,” the report argues. “New polling data from Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, for example, found that the Republican primary electorate that voted for challenger Lauren Boebert over incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton was nearly twice as likely (60%) to identify as ‘very conservative’ compared to general election voters (25%).”

Since so few people vote in partisan primaries, the election outcomes for Congress are essentially decided by the most ideological voters that dominate these contests. “Though turnout in the 2020 general election shattered records at 67%, a supermajority of Congress had already been elected in the primaries,” the report found. “As our analysis found, only 10% of eligible Americans cast votes that mattered in partisan primaries that effectively decided 83% of seats.”

The Institute favors nonpartisan primaries and general election ranked-choice voting. These mechanisms have gained wide support by scholars seeking to address polarization.

“Compromise is politically dangerous, so candidates appeal to their bases,” Larry Diamond argues in a symposium for Politico. “General election voters can’t vote for a third alternative without wasting their vote on a ‘spoiler.’

I must (grudgingly) concede that the argument is persuasive. My husband wins this round.

If that wasn’t annoying enough, a blog post by Paul Ogden, expanding on a comment he made to a previous post here, did further damage to my pro-democracy assumptions.

I have applauded the growth of small-dollar political donations, which the internet makes possible. Such fundraising, I have fondly believed, erodes the influence of the well-heeled political donors who have previously been able to command the attention and obedience of political figures they supported. 

After all, what candidate is going to be influenced by my twenty dollar contribution? And on the “pro-democracy” side of the ledger, people who send ten or twenty bucks to a candidate are demonstrably more interested in the campaign, more likely to vote, follow policy arguments, etc. It’s a win-win!

Paul argues otherwise–convincingly.

The big money for Republican officials today is in small donor donations, not corporate contributions.  Republican elected officials like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Senators Ted Cruz and and Josh Hawley are examples of GOP elected officials who raise huge sums of money off of small, individual contributions.

If you would have told me that there would come a day in politics in which elected members of Congress could eschew hosting big fundraising events attended mostly by corporate donors in favor of raising small donations from individuals, mostly online, I would have applauded the change.  The lack of corporate contributions means these elected officials can now act in a way that is in the people’s best interests rather than the interests of their big corporate donors.Or so I thought. 

That supposed “good government” change to fundraising practices has turned ugly. For elected officials to get a plethora of small donations, they have to draw attention to themselves.  The best way to do that is to act as crazy as possible, say outrageous stuff, and get as much time on Fox News, NewsMax and other conservative media outfits as possible.  

Damn damn damn. He’s right too.

I need a drink…..