The bane of bad and ineffective political fundraising

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Lessons in campaign histrionics

The Thinker by Rodin

I am politically active so I contribute to political campaigns. I don’t contribute a whole lot of money, particularly now that I am retired. During a given election cycle I try to at least throw a few hundred dollars toward worthy candidates. I must say though that I don’t enjoy it very much. This is because once you give you will be petitioned ceaselessly to give more. Worse, once you are on one mailing list your email address will be shamelessly sold or given away to others. The result is a predictable avalanche of emails in my inbox from all sorts of Democratic candidates and progressive causes pleading for money.

Pleading for money is to put it mildly. Pleading implies maybe a little humility and supplication. Not for these campaign managers. I wish I could turn them off but simply cannot. I occasionally go on unsubscribe binges but it never does more than reduce the volume of pleas a bit. My email address simply gets passed around or the candidate will conveniently forget I unsubscribed, particularly as a particular FEC reporting deadline nears.

If I had been more proactive I would have created a junk email account for this sort of mail. I don’t know why, but when I started out giving email to campaigns I sort of assumed that people of a better sort populated them. Apparently they are recruited from hucksters outside carnival sideshows.

Since I don’t have a whole lot of money to give, I have to be very selective about which candidates get my money. Fortunately, I spend a significant part of my day reading about politics, so I feel I am well informed. Most recently I gave these donations:

  • $10 to Jim Mowrer. Jim is running for Iowa’s 4th congressional district. He’s trying to win in bat shit crazy Steve King’s district. How crazy is Steve King? Well, he’s an open racist and xenophobe. He wants an electrified fence on the border with Mexico and he complains that drug smugglers crossing the border on foot have calves the size of cantaloupes from hauling drugs on their backs. Iowans are supposed to be sensible people, but those in this district have yet to prove it because they keep reelecting this clown. I hope my modest donation to Jim might help knock some common sense into these voters. But probably not.
  • $25 to Michele Nunn. She’s the Democrat running for Senate in Georgia. Polling suggests she has a better than even chance to change the seat from red to blue. Her opponent, David Purdue, is the worst sort of Republican, bragging about his ability to outsource jobs. Georgia is slowly swinging blue anyhow, and the Nunn brand carries some traction in the state. Giving to Nunn is an excellent use of my money and recent polls suggest she has a better than even chance of winning.
  • $25 to John Foust. This genuinely open seat is in my district, Virginia’s 10th, which has been filled by Republican Frank Wolf the whole time I’ve been in it. He’s retiring but the Republican candidate Barbara Comstock is trying to convince voters that she’s a moderate while voting for infuriating stuff like transvaginal ultrasounds while in the Virginia legislature. Comstock will probably win this slightly red district, as it stretches all the way to Winchester, but probably only for two years as it keeps getting bluer. Still, it’s worth a donation to see if I can live in a blue district for however short a time before we relocate.
  • $25 to Mark Warner. He is running for reelection against Ed Gillespie and is virtually certain to win. Ordinarily I would not give Mark any money, as he is quite popular and suspiciously moderate. But lately I’ve decided the dynamics in Congress won’t change unless we have more moderates, so I’m giving Warner money. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a good guy.
  • $25 to Bruce Braley, running to keep retiring Tom Harkin’s Iowa senate seat blue. He’s running against a kind of crazy Tea Party type, Joni Ernst. She’ll probably win despite her crazy views, simply because of Obama fatigue and Republicans are chomping the bit to vote, while Democrats will probably fail to engage during midterms, as usual. But maybe a little nudge from me we can keep the seat blue.
  • $25 to Mary Landrieu. She’s got a tough challenge retaining her seat in the red state of Louisiana, but her opponent Bill Cassidy is as usual pretty extreme, and maybe too extreme for Louisiana, but probably not. I disagree with her on lots of stuff, but I’d rather have her on team blue.

I’m not sure how much more I will give, but one thing’s for sure. Apparently there is no chance of Democrats winning at all unless I give great gobs of money every day to all sorts of candidates. At least that’s pretty much the crux of all the emails coming into my email box: it’s a few seconds before a nuclear winter. Most of these are beyond ludicrous and have recently reached the frighteningly embarrassing stage. Here are some from my recent emails:

  • John Foust, or at least his campaign manager says, “we’re going home” because they can’t compete against a $1M ad buy from one of John Boehner’s PACs. But there are links to instantly give them anywhere from $5 to $250 immediately in the email anyhow.
  • Mark Warner, or rather his campaign manager, says this multimillionaire needs more money in spite of being more than ten points ahead of Ed Gillespie in lots of polls. He says Ed Gillespie just bought $400,000 in TV ads, but that’s not true. Gillespie just canceled his advertising, basically understanding he doesn’t have a chance.
  • Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader of course, says disaster is imminent for Democrats, but maybe not if I cough up some money. Democrats are going to lose house seats this cycle but there was no chance they would regain the majority anyhow. Losses though should be minimal. That’s the upside of all these highly gerrymandered districts. Nancy could work on recruiting better candidates for those few districts that are open. In any event, to really change the dynamics in the House we have to work at getting a majority of Democratic governors and legislatures in place for 2020, when the legislative districts will be drawn. That’s a better use of my money.
  • There were no less than four emails from Brad Schneider’s campaign in the last twenty-four hours, which is surprising because I have no idea who he is. For some reason he thinks were BFFs.

Negative ads seem to be effective in persuading voters. Apparently campaign managers believe that histrionic emails are the only way to effectively shake the donation tree these days. Issue them frequently and the scarier they sound the more effective they believe they will be.

Whereas the truth is all of us donors are suffering from extreme campaign fundraising email fatigue. A recent shrill email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where I actually worked in the 1980s had me composing a reply:

“You know, I get conservatively 25 pitches like this a day. If I gave $25 to each plea, I would be donating $625 a day or over $225,000 a year. That’s more than double what I earn every year! Stop it! Just stop it! I’ll contribute when I can afford it to the candidates I feel deserve my hard earned money.”

Of course I followed the unsubscribe link. Unsurprisingly, the DCCC never replied back. And within days, new solicitations from the DCCC were filling up my inbox.

Perhaps a good use of my time in retirement would be to set up a donation site where donations are given anonymously, or at least not shared with candidate organizations. Donors deserve some respect, not this relentless email harassment. In any other context, it would be illegal. Yet there is no equivalent to mass opt out list like there is for telephone solicitations. In fact, everyone in Congress would be hostile to the very idea. They depend on the money tree.

I wish they would give me some peace. For a few days after the election, I may get some. But I am sure it will quickly restart.

Warily opening my checkbook for candidates

The Thinker by Rodin

Millions are being raised and spent right now to elect candidates this November. Yesterday was the end of a quarter, which put the usually shrill political fundraisers into hyperdrive. My inbox is stuffed with dozens of emails a day from candidates, many of who I never heard of but all of who earnestly need my money, but yesterday was an incredible deluge of pleas. They don’t need it next week; they want it now. Apparently they survive by eating hand to mouth from dumpsters.

Many are craftier about it. First, get you hooked by signing an email petition on a favorite topical cause, say the Chick-Fil-A boycott (I’m in), which is easy to do. Then quickly get directed to a prominent donation page. Next, expect you will be put on their short list, which means you will get more requests for donations. Lastly, expect that your email will be sold or given to potentially friendly political candidates. Minnesota is over eight hundred miles away, but I recently got a solicitation for money for some Minnesota state senate candidate. What the hell?

I reluctantly opened up my checkbook (well, actually my credit card) last night to give. It was the end of the quarter and it was getting time to give. I gave Barack Obama a hundred bucks, even though he has frozen my federal salary for three years, and there are likely more years like this in site. I gave Tim Kaine fifty dollars given that “Macaca” candidate and former senator George Allen is likely to outraise him. There are so many other worthy candidates out there that it was hard to know where to start. Elizabeth Warren? Darcy Burner? I ended up giving fifty dollars to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. I figure they know better than I do whom to give it to.

All the candidates claim to be desperate for money. Call me skeptical but I suspect I threw about $190 of the $200 I gave yesterday right down the sewer. This is because there are very, very few minds out there that are likely to change between now and Election Day. Surveys suggest at least ninety percent of Americans have already made up their minds about whom they will vote for. The vast majority will vote the party ticket, and the rest simply aren’t paying much attention and may simply be too apathetic to vote.

In fact, the smart money has already been spent. Republican interests in Republican controlled swing states have already gotten their legislatures to pass voter ID laws that effectively make it more difficult for “those people” (poor, elderly, students and in general Democrats) to vote. Virginia is a swing state and our Republican legislature has done its part. It used to be that I would go vote, they would ask me my name and address and that was good enough. It used to be not unreasonable to assume if you had all that information on you, that you were in fact that voter, particularly because if you weren’t, you were a criminal. Now I need to show an “acceptable” ID. A concealed handgun permit will work, if I had one, as well as a current utility bill or bank statement in a pinch. First time Virginia voters in a federal election must show a federal ID, which is carefully limited and qualified. It was certainly not lost on our Republican legislators that first time federal voters are probably students, and they are likely to be voting absentee if they vote at all. Oh darn, so this makes it less likely that they will vote. In any event, voter suppression is heaps cheaper and much more effective than the endless squawking of political ads on TV or radio. It is much easier to put onerous hurdles in front of undesired voters, many of which, such as getting a photo ID, are time consuming and costly. It is effectively a poll tax. All this to solve a nonexistent voter fraud problem. Naturally this problem is supremely important, but limiting rounds of ammunition to the mentally ill is not on our legislature’s agenda. In fact, they are so owned by the NRA they are probably working on legislation to allow morons to purchase automatic weapons by the truck-full.

So disenfranchising voters: check. It is estimated that at least two percent of voters will be ensnared by these new laws, and most would be inclined to vote Democratic, so that’s an easy way to tip the balance in a close election. This is perfectly legal, unless the Department of Justice protests, but there are also patently illegal ways as well that are well practiced. These include robocalls that purport false voting facts, general intimidation, misleading flyers and signs, and the classic tactic of putting insufficient numbers of voting machines in poor districts.

The other primary factor in winning elections is turnout. This is how the Tea Party won in 2010: Democrats yawned and stayed home. Republicans are super-enthusiastic this time around, as they see Obama as an illegal Muslim socialist president. Also, given that Republicans are arguably a minority party, turnout is crucial. Democrats need to have a compelling reason to vote in the same numbers. Here’s another reason why I think my donations to campaigns won’t matter that much. What bring out voters are compelling issues. Since ninety percent of voters have already made up their mind, to bring out Democrats in droves you have to speak to stuff we care about. I think Obama understand this, given his recent campaign speeches. He sells himself as a champion of the middle class. This is smart because there is no way Republicans can claim this, particularly on a day like today when House Republicans rejected tax cuts for the middle class because it wouldn’t include millionaires.

Most of the money spent on TV and radio ads that will do much good has already been spent. Advantage here to the Obama campaign for spending heavily these last months by planting the idea that Romney simply doesn’t understand the middle class and is out of touch with reality. For an undecided voter, the first candidate to make a convincing case generally gets the vote, and it seems to be working marginally for Obama. Romney’s general cluelessness is actually helpful to Obama.

Money on ads from this point on is generally going to be ineffective, at least on the presidential campaign. Money spent on getting out the vote, however, is money well spent. It certainly was well spent in 2008. It’s my hope that most of the money I gave yesterday goes for get out the vote efforts. Organizing turnout is what truly matters at this point.

All this makes me wonder if candidates really need all the funds they claim they need to wage their campaigns. Some money is certainly needed. For the most part money spent on one side will cancel out money spent on the other side. The most likely reaction by an independent voter to the endless barrage of political ads will be disgust. However, if you look at independent voters, many of them are not so independent and lean toward a political party. The truly independent voter is likely apathetic, not paying attention and probably won’t be voting.

Candidates: I work hard for my money. Use it wisely.

Stop me before I donate again!

The Thinker by Rodin

Let’s talk about the good things George W. Bush has done for America. George W. Bush has scared the crap out of me. I have never donated so much as a dime to any political campaign prior to Bush coming into office. But this year I realized I couldn’t afford not to give my hard earned money for political causes.

With Bush in the White House, Republicans controlling both houses of Congress (and arguably the Supreme Court) our government had turned into a corporate-ocracy. Bush and his far right neoconservatives had moved my country into something truly noxious (and I mean a lot more than the bad air quality). America today bears little resemblance to the country I was born in. I want my country back!

I have taken action. Not only have I worked for political causes I have dug deep into my pocket to put Democrats back into office. Thankfully I am not alone. Democrats all over the country are doing the same.

Here is my personal political spending report to date. It totals $1650. I try to give at least $100 a month to political causes. But through the election I am trying to give $200-$300 a month. If you are a Democrat or consider yourself a progressive it is time to dig deep. The soul of our country is at stake. Consider giving to some of these fine campaigns. (The dollar amount is how much I have given each campaign so far.)

Bagwell for Congress $300 (Disclaimer: Tim is a longtime friend)
– Dean for America (now Democracy for America) $350
Kerry for President $450
Matsunaka for Congress $50
MoveOn.org (various) $350
Richard Morrison for Congress $50 (Tom Delay has got to go!)
Joe Hoeffel for Senate $50
Lois Murphy for Congress $50

Note that I have not given directly to the Democratic National Committee. I know they want me to. So does the DSCC and the DCCC (where I used to work). But I have learned that the candidates they support often represent a different agenda than mine. I don’t want to elect someone who simply returns us to a Tip O’Neil Congress. I want a congress that will be genuinely progressive and beholden to the people’s interests, not the interests of lobbyists. My choices I hope reflect a guerilla movement among Democrats and progressives to skirt the official campaign committees and to put money directly in candidates who best represent the people’s values and stand a good chance of election or overturning a Republican incumbent.

Please do your part.

Goodbye Smoke Filled Room

The Thinker by Rodin

Politics in America is undergoing a fundamental change. Say goodbye to smoke filled rooms and party directed elections. Say hello to true grass roots democracy.

For the most part the powers that be haven’t caught on yet. The Republicans in particular don’t get it. They raise money the old fashioned way: through fundraiser dinners where wealthy patrons write very large checks. Admittedly this is a pretty effective way of raising money, but the supply of wealthy Americans able to drop two thousand dollars at a fundraiser is a relatively small. Even with innovative techniques like “pioneers” and “rangers” that work their network of friends to bundle larger sums of money there is a limit to the amount of money even Bush can raise through this process.

The Democratic leadership isn’t much more innovative. Most presidential candidates are working the phones talking to wealthy donors and are speaking at rubber chicken fundraisers in order to fund their campaigns.

Both parties have in place national, congressional, senatorial and state campaign committees which depend on a core network of committed activists willing to tow the party line. One gets in power by working within the existing power structure and by being willing to compromise your political principles for the greater good. Effecting political change is almost an afterthought; getting and retaining power is the primary focus of political parties.

Increasingly this is not a game many of the disenfranchised grass roots want to play. They’ve seen the results, and what usually happens is that whoever gets in charge becomes disconnected from the real needs of the people, and spends time pandering to their base. As a result tax dollars are squandered toward those who keep politicians in power. I witnessed this in the 1980s working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While hundred dollar checks were appreciated, the focus was large contributions. This was done through means like “The Speaker’s Club” that allowed wealthy contributors to have face time with top congressional leaders. While this was the way the game had been played for years it was very disillusioning to actually see it in practice. I felt kind of dirty facilitating the process through information technology.

The internet has changed things. Since the cost of connecting with like minded people is dramatically lower, those with good technological and organizational skills can use the internet to find people of a similar political persuasion. Most Americans can afford an AOL account. The internet also allows for collaboration among communities that would otherwise be discouraged from coming together due to geography or time. Those with the most to gain from using these new tools were the first to leverage them. Consequently while Republican donors kept writing large checks, insurgent candidates who spoke to the common man like Howard Dean found a way to network those people. And these people found they could afford to send Howard $50 a month. It was a revelation that a whole lot of small contributions equaled or trumped the effects of $2000 contributions from the fundraiser circuit.

Last quarter Howard Dean raised nearly $15M, mostly from supporters primarily using the internet. When the Democratic National Committee tried a similar strategy by contrast it raised a couple hundred thousand dollars. This should tell the DNC something. But I’m not sure they are getting the message. The message is the Democratic Leadership is out of touch and estranged from its base. The Democratic Party is being taken over by its grass roots. I personally think this is a great thing, and I hope fervently that in the process we truly end up with a party that represents those who voted for it.

The energy I feel at the monthly Dean Meetups is palpable. These are people who are determined to win this election and take back the country. We are talking to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers and we are investing significant amounts of our time, energy and money to make it happen. We are empowering ourselves. This is the most amazing aspect of the Dean campaign: it is decentralized. We don’t wait for someone to tell us what to do. We will certainly listen to direction if Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, says we need to write letters to uncommitted voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. But others are networking with senior citizens, or are talking with veterans, or are reaching out to African Americans. We are effecting real change, and we don’t have to curry favor with some party hack in order to do it.

It remains to be seen how far this phenomenon goes. Clearly most Americans have tuned out politics and are more concerned about making a mortgage payment or having time with family. But organizations like MoveOn.org have proven there is a committed base of people who, through small donations and by targeted phone calls and key moments can change policy. It was MoveOn.org’s members, for example, that raised holy hell about the FCC’s change of policy on media ownership rules. This caused the Bush Administration to back down. Instead of 45% ownership of a media market that Chairman Michael Powell pushed through the FCC it looks like it will be raised slightly from 35% to 39%. Even with all branches of government controlled by the Republicans, MoveOn.Com members got it done. Bush’s veto threat apparently was toothless.

Such victories only embolden us to work harder. Howard Dean calls his campaign special interest free. It is not just words. It is a fact. If Howard Dean wins the nomination and the election he may well be the first president elected accountable to no one but the people. Rather than the faux Republican revolution we’ve been experiencing, we might well get that government of the people and by the people that we’ve claimed to have.

Let’s make it so.