Campaign Cash, Why It’s Necessary and it Works

Everybody says they hate money in politics. Everybody says they hate fundraising on campaigns. Congressional candidates famously seem to spend most of their time fundraising. I actually believe everyone who says they hate campaign fundraising, because I do too. We’ve literally ruined campaign email lists with our fundraising asks. It sucks.

Campaigns cost money though, and until you deal with the costs of campaigns, all the talk about getting money out of politics is literally stupid. Campaign offices cost rent. Staff cost salaries. Mail pieces cost printing and postage. We discount television ad costs for candidates, but they cost money. Voter files and printed street lists cost money. Printers and cartridges cost money. Unless you’re going to make the USPS deliver for free, print shops print for free, television ads be given as charity, and campaign staff actually work for free, campaigns will cost money.

The truth of the matter is that there is very little we can do to drive down the costs of a political campaign, especially at the statewide and national level. We have a first amendment that specifically protects political speech in our country. I hope we will soon all agree that corporations aren’t people, and don’t deserve those protections, but that does nothing to stop wealthy individuals from spending their money to get their point across. We should make them far more transparent and easier to trace, but we can’t just stop it.

Still though, many Americans want money out of politics, and they will look for any way possible to get around the need for money. The theory goes that we need to run more “grassroots” styled campaigns. Instead of big donors, raise your money from small dollar donors. With the time you’re not spending shmoozing big donors, you can knock on doors, which many activists are quick to tell you is more effective than the glossy mailers and 30 second ads. If you’re running in a smaller election, like say for town council, I agree. Even in county and some state legislative races, I’d agree that you need to mix your schedule between fundraising and being out in the community, both knocking doors and at events. Once you get up to races at the level of State Senator, Congressman, or big city mayors though, this approach is just ineffective. It ends up coming down to fundraising and paid communications.

I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life working the ground game for Democratic candidates, so I’m not someone who thinks field operations don’t work. I think they’re too expensive and inefficient to win larger elections on alone though. When I started in campaigns over a decade ago, we were told it takes anywhere from five to seven “touches” on a voter to change their voting behavior- making a sporadic voter turn out, converting an undecided voter into a supporter, or whatever your goal is. When your primary voting universe for a Congressional race is 40,000 people, that’s 280,000 touches if you want to persuade them all to do what you want. To reach that many people through a door knocking campaign is expensive, and possibly physically impossible. You would need a massive field staff, which you need to pay a living wage, train, get lists to (printed or on a smart phone, it’s still got a cost), and collect the data from and get back into the data base. It’s unrealistic and incredibly costly to do things that way, and we’re only talking on a primary scale here. General elections are far larger yet.

The truth is that door knocking campaigns, especially neighbor to neighbor, are much more effective, on a limited, small scale. They’re also like trying to score runs in a baseball game by only hitting singles and advancing one base at a time. Paid communications are like hitting a home run. Yes, some people will throw out their mail, or curse at a TV ad, or ignore a digital ad, but that’s only some people. Even those people will see the candidate’s name and message while walking from the mailbox to the garbage can. Is it as personalized or convincing as a conversation with a person? Of course not. Is it more efficient, cost effective, and time effective to use mass, paid communications? Yes.

I’m not saying this is a “one or the other” thing, obviously. A highly targeted ground game that speaks to voters you want to persuade, turnout, or both, can be very effective, particularly in concert with paid communications. Good candidates, and campaigns, do both things well. That’s why they win.

What I am saying is that candidates who win higher level offices are candidates that are committed to fundraising. Candidates with money to spend can defend themselves against big outside spending groups. Candidates with money can afford to do more paid communications and field. Candidates who commit to raising money can usually win their elections.

But back to the initial point- everyone, but particularly Democrats, hate fundraising. We find it dirty, even corrupting, so our candidates spend lots of time telling you how they won’t take corporate checks, won’t take PAC checks, and won’t take lobbyist checks- how stupid! If you’re being honest, most corporate contributions are illegal, and even corporations with PAC’s generally aren’t going to donate to you if they think you’re not for their positions- so candidates with clear, progressive agendas probably can eliminate the thought of some coal company, or pharma company, or big bank sending them money. Believe it or not though, not all PACs and lobbyists are the boogeyman the purists would tell you. The Humane Society, Sierra Club chapters, organized labor, Planned Parenthood, and gun violence prevention groups have PACs to donate from. Solar companies, teachers unions, and non-profits employ lobbyists. When you run quality candidates, who make their positions known, these people try to find them and financially support them. That’s nothing to be ashamed about. To unilaterally say we’re not going to seek their donations is utterly stupid.

I think fundraising sucks and campaigns cost too much. Campaigns aren’t going to be free anytime soon though. If you’re a liberal or progressive person who wants to run for office, I say you should embrace those who will help you and run the best campaign possible.

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