The Thinker

The bane of bad and ineffective political fundraising

I once wrote about how most proselytizers are morons. I can add to that list the fundraisers for candidates running for political office, at least the ones that write me. And write me they do, constantly! Lately my email inbox overflows with fifty or more of these pitches a day all of which boil down to ohmigod the world is going to come to end right now if you don’t empty your bank account and send all of it immediately to my candidate!

Thankfully Gmail seems to recognize a lot of this garbage and throws it into a spam folder, which is good except that means I’d be seeing more than fifty of these a day if it weren’t. There may be a Can Spam Act but it doesn’t apply to solicitations for public office. This means there is no penalty for campaigns contacting me and so they do, over and over again.

Occasionally I do click on the unsubscribe link. Sometimes it actually works, but most of the time it doesn’t last for long. Sometimes I get more emails from the candidate later that same day, even after receiving an email telling me I was unsubscribed from future mailings. I went through a period of several months where I religiously clicked on unsubscribe links for the stuff that did come in my inbox. It rarely worked for long. There is no penalty for candidates swapping email lists. Candidates selling their lists to other candidates appear to be one of the principle ways they make money. The result is there is no way to turn it off.

Proactive contributors know what to do: create an email specifically for this crap and give that to these campaigns. This works fine if you are consistent about it. However, give out your primary email address just once and you are doomed. Your only choice is to abandon that email address for another one. Since almost everyone I care about knows my real email address and it is tied to more businesses and websites than I can count, that’s not an option.

I actually try to read some of this fundraising spam from time to time. Like Craigslist casual encounters postings that I review monthly, it can be amusing. In fact, I could make it a feature of my blog to highlight the sheer inanity of it all, as I actually have done before. Only unlike Craigslist casual encounters, which I assume most people don’t regularly visit, most of you are also getting this crap, so it’s probably not that amusing.

Nonetheless, they occasionally tickle my funny bone. I got one recently from “Vice President Joe Biden” but doubtless some low level staffer at the DSCC or DCCC instead. Joe told me he was personally reaching out to me. He even called me by name (as they all do, as they have harvested your name.) The inanity of it though was funny because there was nothing the least bit personal about it, other than substituting my first name into an email template, which they all do. Since Joe likely has my snail mail address, if he wants to personally reach out to me, he can knock on my door. There’s a good chance I won’t open the door but since he’s vice president I might. And I might give the DSCC, DCCC or whatever group he is soliciting for $50. So come on over, Joe.

Quarterly FEC fundraising deadlines, but now new made-up end of month “deadlines” seem to ratchet up the emails as the month ends. These days any poll that shows a candidate down a few points, or a poll suggesting they are close to beating an incumbent, will stimulate requests for money. It often feels though like they are simply making up stuff. In any event these pitchmen make used car salesmen took ethical. In the process they treat their potential contributors like morons, which probably means they don’t deserve a contribution.

In fact, most of the money given to candidates is wasted. Hillary Clinton of course is taking in heaping piles of money right now. I get not just email but snail mail regularly from her campaign asking me to send $100 or more now! How is she spending it? It’s being spent mostly to buy TV and radio time. This is a complete waste of money. I can find better ways to spend that money on something actually useful.

Why is it a waste of time? It’s because the number of us who are persuadable is vanishingly small. Look at Clinton and Trump’s polling numbers over the past six months. They have fluctuated a bit but their percentages are pretty much where they were six months ago, and Clinton still has the lead. And that’s because six months ago people already knew whom they were going to vote for — yes, our political opinions are that hardened. The vast amounts of the money Clinton is spending now is going for TV and radio ads and it’s pretty much all wasted.

If Clinton wanted to persuade me to send her money, her staff might document that they are spending it wisely. Campaign ads even in swing states aren’t going to move the needle. At this point in the campaign only one-thing matters: turnout. So I want to see a treasurer’s report showing 80% or more of contributions are going to fund turnout efforts. And I want to see evidence that this door knocking and phone banking is working. I want to read about the fleets of buses that will help minorities get to polling stations that are too far away; that they are helping poor people get voter IDs or that they’ve prepaid for a taxi to take these people to the polls who otherwise could not make it. Then I might cough up some more money. But to see it wasted on TV and radio advertising tells me the campaign is run by a bunch of hacks. I’m not spending my hard earned money to prop up the profits of Clear Channel, which owns so many of our nation’s radio stations.

The most effective time to spend money is at the start of a campaign, not its end. At its start the candidate is relatively unknown and needs introduction. Even this is a pretty poor use of campaign money. What we really need are candidates that speak to us; a candidate we can relate to. When that happens we become naturally enthusiastic and the money part tends to take care of itself. Witness Bernie Sanders nearly successful campaign this year as evidence. I gave him money when I saw real potential in the candidate. No one needed to prompt me.

Money is also well spent early in the campaign when memes are set. Obama did in Mitt Romney in June and July 2012 when his campaign brilliantly aired those “47% will never vote for me” ads, showing Romney’s disdain for the working class. Romney would have had a tough campaign regardless, but doing it then when voters were forming impressions about Romney as a genial guy was brilliant, but also fortuitous for the Obama campaign.

With a few exceptions like the Sanders campaign, campaigns in general seem tone deaf to what really works and how to spend and raise money effectively. I can tell the candidates worth supporting by their smart management and the way their candidate naturally connects with voters. The rest of them, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, don’t deserve my support until they demonstrate to me that they will use my hard-earned money wisely. It’s clear from these shrill solicitations in my inbox that the descendants of P.T. Barnum are running their fundraising and that’s a bad sign.

 

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