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.

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.

Cutting the Presidential Timber

The Thinker by Rodin

It is that time in the pre-election season. The last thing most Americans want to do now is think about who they will pull the lever for in November 2008. However, serious candidates are already moving their pieces. If Pawn to King 4 is a traditional opening move in chess, forming a presidential exploratory committee is a candidate’s first public move into the complex dynamics of running for president.

Since most candidates come right out and say they are running for President, I am a bit puzzled why they claim their campaigns are “exploratory”. Most have done their homework and know that an exploratory committee is the end result of a long process, not the beginning of one. Most of these campaigns will be felled long before the Iowa Caucus. Many will find that no matter how large their ambitions, they simply will not be able to find enough money to run a competitive campaign. The more sober ones will realize early that they simply do not have the right mixture of personal magnetism and mojo to win, then withdraw. Even this early in the campaign it is easy to see who these will be. One will be Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. In addition, you can bet that Chris Dodd and Joe Biden will be among the first to hang it up. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, although he claims he is running to win, realizes his candidacy is about trying to raise issues that appeal to the ultra left wing of the Democratic Party. He knows he has no chance but he does enjoy his brief moments of in the spotlight that comes from being a candidate.

Timing your presidential announcement is always something of a crapshoot. It is never a good idea to be the first to declare. It is the kiss of death. That is why Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has no chance. He hopes, like all candidates first out the gate, to gather some name recognition. It is a rule that the first candidate to declare must be someone 99 out of 100 people will say, “Who the heck is he?” It is far better, if you are serious about running for president, to be wealthy enough and have time enough to spend years acting like you are running for president for years before declaring yourself. This has been former North Carolina Senator John Edwards’s strategy. At this point, he probably knows Iowa better than most of its residents. However, his tenacity has paid off. Most early polls of Iowa show him in the lead.

At some point, you must take the presidential plunge. Hillary Clinton took the plunge the other weekend. In her announcement (placed first on her web site, just to show that she is Netroots friendly) she invited Americans to have a dialog with her about their issues and concerns. I am sure I am one of the vast majority of Americans who, when they heard her say this, also heard their bullshit meters clanging. Nonetheless, try to take her up on it. Why not send her an email earnestly telling her your opinions on issues of the day. I am sure in her voluminous spare time she will give you a thoughtful reply.

Hah! Not a chance! Instead, here is how Hillary Clinton is probably spending her days. First, there is probably an hour of exercise somewhere. She may be pushing 60, but you are not elected president by looking flabby. Then there is likely another hour at the hairdresser, blow drying the hair and having her makeup applied. Then it is off to briefings and committee meetings, that is when Congress is actually in session. Otherwise, she is probably whispering to her chief of staff or working her Blackberry during those committee hearings. Perhaps because she is a very special FOB (Friend of Bill) she is not spending her evenings on the phone grubbing money. In her voluminous spare time, rather than opening a dialog with you, she is flying here and flying there in an attempt to be seen to be doing the right things. Right now she is busy being seen in Iowa, where the first caucus will be held. She will likely also be found at rubber chicken dinners at American Legion Halls across New Hampshire. When not engaged in these time consuming and expected activities of a presidential candidate, there are the numerous interviews with the press. This is how she really connects with voters. The conversation is one way and you only get to listen. If she reads a newspaper, it is probably when she is flying somewhere. Do not be naïve enough to think that she actually is busy reading editorials and in depth articles about the issues of the day. She has staff to do that for her. She gets bullet points.

In short, most presidential campaigns are about giving the appearance of connecting with the voters without actually following through. Those she connects with are likely to be people who already support or admire her in the first place, so their opinions are hardly a representative sample. If you take the time to attend one of her events (not that any are likely to be near you, unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire), expect to listen and not speak. Perhaps if you leave a comment on her website’s blog an earnest staff member will take the time to reply. Do not hold your breath.

I do not know why but so far, Hillary’s candidacy has me under whelmed. This is a shame, because she is an articulate and principled woman who would be one of the better-qualified women in the country to be president, in spite of her long association with Bill. She certainly knows what the job is like, having already lived in the White House. Still, her candidacy to date feels stage-managed and slick, a product more of Madison Avenue than from genuine passion and interest. One gets the feeling that Bill is helping her furiously triangulate. It is hard to pin her down on very much at the moment. She is upset with the War on Iraq, but not upset enough (yet) to renounce her vote for the war. She wants to have it both ways. She remains very articulate but is not passionate.

If you want passion with a touch of charisma, John Edwards is likely your candidate of the moment. At least he comes across that way, and he projects the right combination of passion and eloquence on the campaign trail to both connect with voters and appear to have a comprehensive vision forward for the country. In addition, unless he is a remarkable faker, he has convinced me that he cares for the average person. It is unlikely you will find Hillary Clinton rehabilitating housing in New Orleans.

Some potential candidates are making motions like they will not run while not absolutely excluding it altogether. Al Gore comes to mind. It is a shame that he seems uninterested in running, but he may be playing his cards very close to his chest. He now has the conviction and gravitas he did not show in the 2000 campaign. With his tenacity and eloquence educating the world on global warming, he has proven himself as being a leader well ahead of the curve. Moreover, among only a handful of candidates he can claim he was right all along. He spoke out against the Iraq War Resolution at the time Congress was considering it. At some personal risk, he endorsed Howard Dean early in the 2004 presidential campaign. Whether Howard was more electable than John Kerry may not matter. What matters is that Dean was right about Iraq and correct on the issues then that matter so much now. If you have ever heard his speak lately on politics, you know he can speak with a special eloquences. The old stage managed Al is gone.

Others who should run are also being mum. As I survey the field, Al Gore would be my first choice. Lacking him, Wesley Clark strikes me as the person with the necessary combination of military experience and common sense to be an effective president at this perilous time. Bill Richardson, another dark horse who is also unlikely to get far in his campaign, would be another fine choice. Like Clark, he has the credentials in the foreign policy area including a stint as U.S. Representative to the United Nations. Richardson has a unique ability to get along with people than no one else can stand. He counts as a personal friend none other than North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il. Richardson has also traveled to Darfur to speak to the leaders on all sides of the conflict, in a personal attempt to ease the crisis there. He has a combination of the pragmatic experience of running a state along with the right mixture of federal foreign policy experience.

To me Barack Obama, who also recently jumped into the race, remains an unproven commodity. He has certain advantages including eloquence, youth, and handsomeness. (The latter is an unspoken requirement for presidential candidates.) Yet his resume is thin. It would be exciting to have an African American or a woman as president, just for the novelty. Nonetheless, the challenging times we live in require someone not just with the eloquence but also with the skills and common sense to deal with a myriad of complex issues that challenge us. I suspect Obama needs another dozen years proving himself in the Senate before he will truly be qualified to say he is presidential timber. Americans though often prefer style over substance, so he may well run away with the nomination.

I will not speak too much of the declared Republican candidates. I do this frankly because I don’t think a Republican candidate will have a serious chance of winning in 2008. This is because President Bush, probably unknowingly, is putting a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. There is no candidate out there except possibly Chuck Hagel or Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that would not be tarred by association with him. Right now Rudy Giuliani polls best, but this is among Americans at large, not among Republicans. Nonetheless, his star should dim significantly once more Americans are aware of his seamier side. It is not every candidate who will openly cheat on his wife while being mayor of America’s largest city. In addition, he is likely way too gay friendly to win the Republican nomination. The Republican conservative Christian segment is still too large.

The only thing certain in this presidential race today is that too much remains uncertain this far out. Surprises come with the territory. Expect a scandal or two to surface. Expect candidates who are perceived to have the edge now to flounder, and a candidate or two in the third tier to move up a notch or two. There may be some drama with an unexpected late run, perhaps from Al Gore. Moreover, expect that national and international events between now and the conventions will also affect voter’s perceptions.

My sense though is that neither Barak Obama nor Hillary Clinton will win the nomination. Those perceived at the moment to be first tier candidates will likely flounder. I do not know whom the Democrats will eventually nominate, but I suspect it will be someone that will disappoint those who place faith in conventional wisdom. For us political junkies, it will still be a lot of fun updating our scorecards.

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