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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The Sad Truth About Pawlowski’s Fall in Allentown

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Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski was not my favorite guy. I was never a part of his inner circle, and I was on the receiving end of his political consultant’s wrath a few times. Ed is not a sympathetic, warm and fuzzy character either. At best, he’s an acquired taste. There’s another side to it though- he really wasn’t a bad Mayor. The re-development of Downtown Allentown that he undertook has improved that city. His political sense, to bring the rising Latino and Syrian communities into the political process, will make the city better for decades to come. Good things have been happening in a city that was not going in a good direction when he got elected. Remember, his predecessor left office very unpopular, while Ed was re-elected pretty convincingly last Fall.

To be clear though, the jury believed the government’s case, that Ed Pawlowski was a liar, corrupt, and had defrauded the public of honest public services. They believed he undertook a vast conspiracy, to use his office’s power to raise money for runs for higher offices, while in the process not doing what is right for the people. Essentially, they believed he was a lying crook. In truth, the recordings were devastating. The government’s cross-examination of Pawlowski, in which they forced him to admit he was a liar, sealed his fate and sent him to jail, probably for the next decade. It’s hard to argue with the juries findings, given the evidence that was put forward. Once Ed admitted he lied about some things, why would they believe he wasn’t guilty of everything?

So one has to ask how this happens? I have no evidence that Pawlowski, an ex-preacher, is somehow particularly evil. While it may not be okay for a Mayor to take football tickets or dinners from vendors, let’s not pretend this guy was Congressman Bill Jefferson (D-LA), with $50,000 in his freezer. It appears that this guy became blind with ambition, and his need for political benefactors drove him to do things that he probably didn’t expect to do when he ran in 2005. It also appears that his political consultant became blind with greed, and the ability to make money from politicians, unions, developers, and anyone else who had a checkbook. The whole thing is kind of sad, and frankly very cautionary. Here was a city that was making some positive progress, and now we see that it was all built on lies. That’s a damn shame.

I think the honest truth here is that campaigns cost too damn much money. This is why Pennsylvania legislators were using state staff to run campaigns in exchange for bonuses a decade ago, and it’s why we’re watching Allentown’s positive story unravel now. It costs too much money to run 1,000 points of television, or to send a mail piece to a state house district, or to pay for a couple of field organizers. Obviously this doesn’t lead most elected officials to corruption- out of the tens of thousands of candidates for office every year, only a small percentage are even ever investigated, let alone charged, let alone convicted. We should treat this as a particularly appalling case. While fundraising, one should never even discuss promises of public policy outcomes, and everyone in politics knows that, while only a few violate it. Even so, it’s hard to finance a campaign at any level, at least if you want to win.

Here’s the truth about campaigns- you can’t make them free. Mail has to cost postage. Television commercials cost money to produce, let alone buy air-time to show. Campaign staff have to be paid in order to be able to work for a candidate. Printers have to be paid for printing literature. Campaign offices have to cost rent. You can’t force people to provide these goods and services for free.

There’s a second truth too- you can’t stop interested people from donating to campaigns. Who are most interested? Those involved in the governing process. You cannot limit the ability of anyone in our society to speak out on political matters- this is what the First Amendment expressly protects. When you limit the ability of people to donate directly to candidates, they end up creating their own dark money groups and independent expenditures- which ends up leading to confused voters, shady messaging, and elections bought by the billionaires and oligarchs.

None of this should be accepted as normal or okay. No matter how hard it is to finance your political ambitions, you cannot sell public policy for campaign donations. You cannot rig bids to help campaign donors. You should not be sweeping your office for wires and phone taps. You cannot lie to the FBI when they launch an investigation into your work. The jury found Mayor Pawlowski guilty of that.

No one won in the case of Ed Pawlowski. He will go to jail, which is obviously terrible for his family and friends. The city was making progress, and becoming a better place to live, which now falls under question. The taxpayers were denied honest services by the entire conspiracy. The whole situation is sad. We shouldn’t treat it as normal.