Ten Miles Square

Blog

May 09, 2013 9:30 AM Small Donors May Make Politics Even Worse

By Ezra Klein

Can small money overwhelm big money? Faced with a hostile Supreme Court and a gridlocked Congress offering little chance of passing legislation, today’s campaign-finance reformers sure hope so.

The notion is alluring. Online fundraising has made it easy to collect large sums in small increments from thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Soon, proponents hope, politicians won’t have to go to lobbyists and corporate bundlers; the Internet will simply disrupt campaign finance as it has upended so much else.

Freed from corporate money, which always wants something in return, politicians could instead rely on citizen money, which merely wants good government. And if by some happy political accident campaign-finance legislation eventually becomes possible, it need only reinforce the democratizing tendencies of the Internet, perhaps by creating a federal matching system for small donors.

So goes the theory, anyway. Add some transparency rules to identify the anonymous (and seemingly unlimited) flood of cash from independent groups facilitated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its sister rulings from lower courts, and all of a sudden you’ve got a pretty good campaign-finance system.

Begging Lawmakers

This week, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, spoke at a Yale University conference on money, power and inequality. He described the pathetic spectacle of elected representatives spending hours each day in warrens at their political party’s headquarters, acting more like telemarketers than statesmen. “If it looks bad from the outside it feels even worse from the inside,” he said.

He argued that American politics now selects people willing to devote themselves to that soul-crushing task for hours each day. “Comfortable asking total strangers for money” is not, I think, a character trait most Americans admire. Now it’s a prerequisite for running for office — and thus it distorts who actually ends up holding office.

But Murphy was also a realist about the prospects of small donors fixing what ails the system.

“We have to admit that everybody who is giving is giving for a reason,” Murphy said. “Some of them are your friends and family and they care about you. But most of the time they care about an issue, whether they’re a corporation or an individual. We draw these arbitrary lines, but corporations want things from the government, and so do individuals.”

That’s the secret of small money. We tend to assume “small donors” hail from that mythical, much-beloved class of people known as “ordinary Americans.” They’re not. Even if tens of millions of Americans are donating, hundreds of millions of other Americans aren’t. The tiny minority that donates is different from the vast majority that doesn’t: They’re much, much more ideologically polarized.

What individual donors tend to want, Murphy said, is partisanship. “When I send out a fundraising e-mail talking about how bad Republicans are, I raise three times as much as when I send out an e-mail talking about how good I am. People are motivated to give based on their fear of the other side rather than on their belief in their side.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, the three top fundraisers in the House of Representatives in the 2012 election were Speaker John Boehner — makes sense, the guy runs the place — followed by former Representative Allen West and Representative Michele Bachmann.

Oy.

West was a one-term Florida congressman famous for pithy observations such as, “I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.” He raised an extraordinary $19 million. Bachmann raised $15 million. (Victors in 2012 House races raised about $1.7 million on average.) Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in case you’re wondering, came in fifth, with a bit over $7 million.

Passionate Activists

The fundraising reports tell the story. Although small-donor contributions of less than $200 accounted for just 5 percent of Cantor’s total, small donations accounted for 48 percent of West’s contributions and 64 percent of Bachmann’s.

On a gut level, I vastly prefer the passionate party activist who sends $200 to her favorite fire-breather to the lobbyist who coolly covers his bets by supplying $2,000 to both candidates in a race. One is acting as an engaged citizen. The other is a glorified bagman. But both have the potential to break our political system.

Just as big money is corrupting, small money is polarizing. And it’s polarization that probably poses the bigger threat to American politics right now. Big money, for example, generally wants to raise the debt ceiling. Small money is one reason Republicans in Congress came close to breaching it. Big money often wants the two parties more or less to get along; no one gets a tax break if legislation dies on the floor. Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side. Big money erodes what little trust Americans still have in their political system. Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function.

“Internet financing can be a temporary salve on the wound,” said Murphy, who raised much of his campaign contributions online. “But ultimately, it needs to be public financing of elections.”

I agree that public financing is part of the solution. But it isn’t enough. We also need to change the rules and incentives to keep polarized parties from undermining the well-being of the country. That will require disarming some of the procedural tactics that politicians have weaponized in recent years: making debt-ceiling increases automatic, for example, rather than an opportunity for hostage-taking, and ridding the Senate of the filibuster, or at least making it harder to use.

Partisanship isn’t going away, and campaign-finance reforms that don’t accommodate that fact could make problems worse. At some point, we have to adapt to the partisan landscape we have rather than imagining we can return to the ideologically mixed parties and bipartisan political system of the mid-20th century. It’s not coming back. Just ask those small donors.

Back to Home page

Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Comments

  • janinsanfran on May 09, 2013 8:41 PM:

    Hey Ezra -- isn't this just your classic false equivalence column? The partisanship of the Republican small donor is aimed at burning the house down before the black and brown hordes take over. The partisanship of Democrats is closer to asking government to do its job of promoting the general welfare. There's a difference. And there is something very false in an article that treats these two as having the same implications.

  • James on May 10, 2013 9:15 AM:

    While this article makes a number of very interesting points, that first comment by janinsanfran is spot on. The Republican (or at least the Tea Party Republican) small donor has much more destructive goals in mind. In any event, it's depressing to think that our highest elected officials spend much of their day cold-calling for cash.

  • Dave L on May 10, 2013 10:08 AM:

    The rare very weak column from Ezra Klein... Not much firm support for the thesis, just some observations that might mean what the title says, might not. The column worries me in its quickness to put high-dollar corporate fundraising on a good-governance par with small donor fundraising. Ezra, your name on a column will have some readers just assume the thesis is correct, and your research and argument don't justify that in this case -- too big and important a topic to casually engage in guessing games...

  • Rich on May 10, 2013 10:18 AM:

    A good example of lazy research and full-on hackdom. He cherrypicks people whose small donations probably have a lot to do with the reach astroturf fundraising organizations. I wonder if Bernie Sanders' fundraising profile looks like Boehner's or Bachmann's. The Monthly shouldn't publish poorly such obviously shoddy jun and Klein should just get it over with and get himself a job with some hackshop like one of the Pete Peterson orgs.

  • toowearyforoutrage on May 10, 2013 11:51 AM:

    Donating to Sanders is on my bucket list so, yes, uber liberals may also have a larger share of their donations coming from penny ante types.

    Obama did well on this score too and he's more moderate than a lot of donors would like.

    Before we get too full of ourselves, Tea Partiers donate for a bigger military and stronger border security. These are BUILDING America, not destroying it. Not in ways we think are a very good use of manpower and resources, but their motives are benevolent, if not similar to ours.

    They oppose snooping (no one is more venomous about gov't drones than conservatives.) and they are very upset about high taxes and regulation crushing an economy that could be employing people.

    Okay, they're hopelessly uninformed about economics, but to disparage their motives distracts from the cure.


    The solution is to convince Wall Street to pare back their donations when the GOP does risky things like debt ceiling threats. We'll never convince them to donate to liberal Democrats, but at least they can stop throwing gasoline on the fire.

    really, it's a win-won. They keep the country on solid footing which supports business missions and they save money by not greasing the palms. It shouldn't be that hard a sell.

    Need to lobby a loophole for yourselves? Grease some moderate Dems palms instead of the most nutty Republicans to get the vote over the top. You can get your plutocratic measures passed without strengthening the most unhealthy elements of your favorite boot-licking political party.

    C'mon corporate America, you can be part of the solution AND save money!

  • low-tech cyclist on May 10, 2013 12:52 PM:

    “We have to admit that everybody who is giving is giving for a reason,” Murphy said. “Some of them are your friends and family and they care about you. But most of the time they care about an issue, whether they’re a corporation or an individual. We draw these arbitrary lines, but corporations want things from the government, and so do individuals.”

    That’s the secret of small money. We tend to assume “small donors” hail from that mythical, much-beloved class of people known as “ordinary Americans.” They’re not. Even if tens of millions of Americans are donating, hundreds of millions of other Americans aren’t. The tiny minority that donates is different from the vast majority that doesn’t: They’re much, much more ideologically polarized.

    Ezra: this perspective is wrong, wrong, WRONG.

    What you are saying is correct, as far as it goes. But it's got a blind spot you can drive America's largest corporations through.

    Because partisan small donors may drive legislators to take partisan stands on issues that actual voters care about, BUT there are a host of corporate concerns that routinely get turned into law, that partisan voters don't care about, in those rare instances that they're actually aware of them.

    Maybe it's because I'm a small-d democrat, or maybe it's because I'm aware of who has the true power in our system of government. (Or maybe the first follows from the second.)

    But I'm a hell of a lot more comfortable with the followers of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell being able to influence legislators, than I am with the notion of Wal-Mart, Cargill Corp., Bank of America, and the like being able to do so.

    The followers of Robertson, Dobson, etc. are real people, with jobs, children, friends, and other things competing for their time; they won't be influencing legislation 24/7. But a corporation can hire a fleet of lobbyists to do exactly that. Their money never stumbles or grows weary.

    And the wingnuts will also eventually grow old, and be replaced by a generation that's at least slightly more enlightened. Corporations never age; they are potentially immortal.

    A campaign funding system dominated by small donors would be a vast improvement over what we've got. Period.

  • Josh on May 13, 2013 1:12 PM:

    I think Ezra has a point. But there are other factors at play in the "small dollar" aggregate donor aspects to modern political fundraising that aren't being talked about here.

    Unless you're notorious (and I mean that in the classical sense) it's actually pretty difficult to raise significant sums from small-dollar donations without also incurring significant costs. Take 2 MN examples from both sides of the aisle: Bachmann & Franken. Both can raise big money off the email blasts to their huge lists...but there are very few candidates that have lists like that, with crossover appeal beyond the political engaged donors. Sitting office holders can get there pretty quickly if they want to, but unless you have something special going for you that can engage a broader universe, it's not happening.

    It's amazing the number of people that think you can just send out an email and raise tens of thousands of dollars. And for most candidates, you really can't. A challenger might send one to a universe of 5,000 emails and be thrilled with a return of $1-2K. Until you get on one of the parties preferred lists as a targeted race, or get a rabbi from another office holder with a big base, you're building these lists in pieces and it's hard, expensive work if done in true grassroots fashion. Buying lists is relatively cheap, but unless it's YOUR list that you built, it's not that effective for you. There are telemarketing firms around the country that raise small dollar donations for candidates...and collect anywhere from 50%-90% of the take.

    I'm not making this up here, I've raised money for more than one campaign.