November 30, 2022

The madness of throwing money at political candidates

Amy McGrath, Kentucky’s Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, never really had a chance to beat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, her party’s arch nemesis. Throughout the race, she was 10 percentage points lower than the incumbent. McGrath ended up losing around 20 percentage points. But for many donors who poured a total of $ 88 million into his campaign, giving McConnell’s opponent was just plain enjoyable, whether or not it was a productive use of the money.

McGrath raised nearly three-fifths of his funds from donors who each gave less than $ 200. Wealthy Democrats across the country also attended. In my home state of Massachusetts, over 500 people have donated $ 1,000 or more to McGrath’s campaign. the 20 best employers whose staff most contributed to McGrath’s campaign include the University of California, Stanford and Harvard system, as well as the US government, the State of California, and New York City. Employees of Facebook, Apple and other tech companies were also big donors. McGrath’s financial disclosures only make sense when politics is a fantasy game, in which the coastal elites use the money to get rid of something rather than achieving real goals.

In a democracy, the goal of politics is to acquire and then exercise power over public policy. Donating rage to long-standing candidates – from either party – is not a winning strategy. McGrath’s donations indicate a bigger problem.

In a post-election interview earlier this week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, argued that her party was lacking in “basic skills”In grassroots engagement. As a political scientist who studies the behavior of parties and voters across the country, I think this criticism is correct. Candidate campaigns will spend money on TV ad campaigns or short-term hiring campaigns, but they rarely try to create sustainable grassroots organizations that help shape the leaders of tomorrow and get the vote out in good and bad times. State Democratic and Republican Party organizations are often cash-strapped and therefore wield little influence. Democratic and Republican campaigns can be Frexcited and disorganized.

When I meet political organizers who patiently build support for the causes they care about most, they stand out as rare exceptions to the norm. They are not the ones who are raising heaps of money on the Internet.

Individuals, political action committees and other contributors spent some $ 14 billion on this year’s presidential and congressional races; small donors made up about a fifth of that, according to the Center for Sensitive Politics. About 40% of Joe Biden’s donations and 45% of Donald Trump’s came in quantities less than $ 200. Donations mostly took place online. Democrat-aligned finance company ActBlue reported over $ 1.5 billion in donations from July to September alone. Due to the pandemic, wealthy donors, who in typical years are tasted and dined in exchange for their gifts, also donated via the Internet at high rates.

Online donations large and small suffer from a discipline issue. Rather than stop, think and plan a strategy—which candidate or organization would make the best use of my money?– many online donors simply act expressively. They see an inspiring video and click on Donate. They see a good politician take out a bad politician in a debate or in a congressional hearing, and they click donate. They mourn the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and they click Make a donation. Sometimes that money goes to a big campaign or to an organization that will use it well. Other times, not a lot.

Ideally, expressive giving would create an opportunity for political organizers to collect money when it happens easily so that they can spend it later, much like the biblical Joseph stored crops in the years of plenty to maintain supply in years of famine. That advantage, of course, relies on party agents like Joseph to lay the groundwork, hire full-time organizers, plan a long-term base strategy, and keep the momentum strong for the end of the donation stream.

More often than not, however, money that is raised quickly and non-strategically is spent quickly and non-strategically. Two years from now, when Democrats face a very difficult time trying to retain control of the House of Representatives, donors may be less enthusiastic than in a presidential election year. And candidates who spent their campaign accounts in 2020 will have little wealth to share with state or national parties. For example, the candidate for the Senate Jaime Harrison, a Democrat from South Carolina, raised a record $ 107.5 million and spent $ 104 million, according to current estimates. What’s more, federal law imposes strict limits on what a candidate’s campaign can transfer to that of another.

Additionally, the candidates and posts that make the most money online aren’t necessarily the top performing candidates and posts to voters. For example, online fundraisers have known for a long time this outrage is the key to these big money making viral videos, which is why very provocative candidates like Trump are so adept at giving cheap donations for themselves. But as Harrison and McGrath have shown, contestants can raise huge sums of money online while losing by double digits.

Overall, the political right donates more strategically than the political left. As political scientists have long describe, conservative funders like Charles Koch have spent decades planning for the long haul. They have invested in the next generation of state and municipal politicians and organizers across the country. They invest in the legislative lobbying of the state. Understanding the political value of local religious groups and gun clubs, they do not see the grassroots organization as parochial and inferior to them. They see it as the key to lasting government control. Meanwhile, the biggest and most notable spenders on the Democratic side include Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, who sometimes invest in interesting long-term local strategies, but who will be best remembered for spending together almost $ 1.5 billion on their own long-term presidential candidacies: short-term, top-down and futile.

Bloomberg and Steyer aren’t the only people on the left who enthusiastically engage in politics in a flattering but above all pointless way – an approach I call a “political hobby.” When I speak with groups of mostly liberal citizens across the country, I sometimes ask them if they would hypothetically be willing to support a 25-year-old fresh out of law school who is running as a county judge. in its state. Some of them think, Yes! This judge may have an important career and, who knows, could one day be on the Supreme Court.. But many more of them say they would devote little attention to running when much more important things are happening in the world. This last answer is how you lose in the long run.

Not all online donors click Donate from their couch in response to viral videos. A lot of people, rich and not rich, are doing something different. I have met low income donor groups who plan wisely who to give $ 25 or $ 50 during an election cycle. They think about their goals and their strategies to achieve their goals. Likewise, groups of wealthy donor circles are doing the same thing but on a much larger scale. They interview candidates as they might interview charities, seeking to invest in the most promising ones.

Going forward, if they want long-term power, political donors will need to invest their money not only in individual candidates, but in organizations that focus on building that long-term power. They need to hold organizations like party committees and super PACs accountable for hiring top leaders who can execute a long-term plan. The plan should focus on organizing person-to-person, offline and online. Organizing online doesn’t mean advertisements; it means building relationships. Organization at the grassroots means no shortcuts, no evolving technology fixes. It means deepening relationships in communities. Donors themselves must stop functioning in crisis mode, thinking only of the next election. They have to make a 10, 20 or 30 year plan.

When the country is in crisis, a 30-year plan may seem too gradual. I often think of how Dave Fleischer, a progressive organizer, answer this point. He says politics is like saving for retirement. Precisely because the stakes are so high, we are not saving for retirement by playing Powerball. We save money by saving a few dollars each month for our entire adult life. But in elections, a lot of people, including very wealthy and otherwise savvy people, play the lottery every cycle and wait for something magical to happen. With enough money, they hope, an Amy McGrath or a Jaime Harrison might just win.

In theory, political parties could play the role of Joseph. Local, state and national parties could be a meeting place for rich donors, low income donors, activists, volunteers and candidates, working together on a long term agenda. Basically that’s what a political party is designed To do. But if party organizations prove unsuitable for this role, then other groups must step in. This is what the Koch family did. He brought other donors into his orbit, strategized on how to spend the money effectively, and made long-term plans. Other donors need to exercise a similar discipline if they are to build a lasting vision for our country, rather than keep spending money on losing campaigns.