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We have another milestone to celebrate around the office: 2 million donations! And we got there only a year and a half after we hit 1 million. Averaged out over that period, we're talking 55,000 donations a month during some of slowest months of the election cycle.

Here's why it matters: our infrastructure is what turns grassroots passion into political results. While the "enthusiasm gap" was making headlines across the country, Democratic donors flocked to ActBlue to connect with their chosen candidates. Our infrastructure enabled the Wisconsin Recall efforts to demonstrate their fundraising oomph in real time, and helped labor issues find their way back into national discourse. Today that conversation is in a dramatically different place than it was a few months ago.

But 2012 is where the rubber meets the road. It's our transparent, participatory architecture against the small and increasingly shadowy world of Republican fundraising unleashed by Citizen's United.

2 million grassroots donations or five guys writing blank checks: which system would you rather have?

Over at DailyKos, David Nir has a post up asking "what ever happened to the right's version of ActBlue?" It's a good question. As David shows, the right's attempts to replicate our success have resulted in failure after failure. (He misses my all-time favorite, StandUpRed, which is a word-for-word copy of our website.)

Part of the answer to that question lies in the surreal tale of ActRight, as related by Republican Louis J. Marinelli. In brief, ActRight was apparently intended to be an astroturf arm of NOM, based out of a vacant lot in a non-existent area code in Washington D.C. And the underlying weirdness of ActRight speaks to the central tension that's currently roiling the right: their keen appreciation for the symbolic power of grassroots politics and their near-total aversion to it in practice.

The GOP establishment welcomed movement conservatism and the religious right into the Republican fold in the early 80s to help them compete in federal elections. The logic was straightforward: a little lipservice to social conservative rhetoric would give them the votes they'd need to roll back tax rates on corporations and the top income brackets. And though the Rockefeller Republicans who masterminded that Faustian bargain are now all but extinct, that was pretty much the game until now.

But the groups ushered in under Reagan weren't content with their lot as rubes to be shaken down for votes, and slowly increased their clout in congress. As Nate Silver has shown, in 2010 these very conservative voters turned out at a much higher rate than moderates or liberals, finally capturing the Republican Party.

Today, issues like the debt ceiling have put the conservative grassroots at loggerheads with Republican business elites. Moderate Republicans have nowhere to go. They'll be punished for providing anything less than total victory, and punished all the harder if a compromise agreement involves concessions to Democrats. However, if they don't compromise, they'll send the economy back into recession, alienate their fundraising base, and severely damage their presidential prospects. 

A tool like ActBlue for the right only worsens that problem. It would empower exactly the sort of candidates and donors the GOP establishment doesn't want empowered. Their highly insular fundraising networks are one of the only ways they have to keep the wolves at bay; their stranglehold on congressional leadership positions is another. Access to the former is the key to the latter. Until the tension between GOP activists and elites is resolved, Republican attempts to replicate our platform will continue to founder, or limp along as particularly sad patches of astroturf.

Over at Greg Sargent's blog, Adam Serwer (who also blogs at the American Prospect) has a good post up on the GOP reaction to President Obama's executive order requiring contractors who do business with the federal government to disclose their political donations. 

I predicted the GOP would react this way in an earlier post, but I didn't expect the additional layer of irony that is John Yoo arguing for "a right to political privacy" in the Wall Street Journal. John Yoo, you'll recall, is the guy who said the President could order a village massacred. He's the guy who wrote the torture memos and argued that the fourth amendment doesn't apply to the War on Terror. That exemption was the basis for the warrantless wiretapping program exposed by the New York Times in 2005. And the final sign that Yoo is way out on a limb here is simply that Justice Antonin Scalia disagrees with him:

[R]unning a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights…

So, to recap, according to John Yoo, the American people don't have any right to privacy. The government can seize your phone records, lock you away forever, have you tortured, and whatever else seems like it might stop the terrorists. But should Uncle Sam ask contractors that stand to benefit financially from their campaign donations to disclose who they're giving to–well, that would be government overreach.

Since this issue is complicated, let me boil it down to a few key facts:

  1. The Supreme Court has explicity rejected the argument that disclosure "chills speech." When you speak using your voice, people know that it's you speaking. The same should be true when you speak using your money. 
  2. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court specifically called for disclosure: "[w]ith the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters… citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests."
  3. The Republican Party has blocked off all other avenues for protecting disclosure. The DISCLOSE Act "failed" in the Senate, as a 59-39 majority in favor of it was insuffient to overcome a Republican filibuster. And our General Counsel has written extensively about the way in which the 3-3 Republican-Democrat split in the FEC has rendered the body impotent. The executive order was hardly the preferred option.

Those three facts and the choice of John Yoo as messenger should tell you everything you need to know about the sincerity, coherence and good intentions that underlie the GOP's position on disclosure. 

Read the editorial, it's a masterwork of mendacity, a cavalcade of calumnies, a fraudulent fantasy penned by a man who shouldn't have an iota of credibility on matters of speech, privacy or democracy. On a personal note, I find the sickest thing about Yoo's editorial to be its view that the assault, imprisonment and murder of Civil Rights supporters and disclosure laws are equally injurious to our democracy. Taking a beating in the press is in no way the same as actually taking a beating

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant, recently diagnosed the ills that plague mobile giving:

it can be pretty frustrating watching these solutions get tripped up in the bureaucratic thicket of the FEC, or the closed ecosystem of the wireless carriers — with all the architectural limits they carry that the free Internet does not.

He argues that the point-of-sale constraint of Square, SMS payment limits, and FEC disclosure requirements are the major obstacles to mobile giving. Here's the problem: simplicity and ease of use are important, but the real limit Ruffini is bumping up against–by his own admission–is the lack of scalable infrastructure on the right. That lack forces Ruffini into awkward spaces, like calling for mobile operating systems to update their OS, or the creation of new apps to facilitate political giving. It's not that these are impossible, or not worth doing, but that their value is unknown relative to the costs they impose on developers and carriers.

Fortunately, over here we've got that problem solved.

Want to collect donations in real time? Text or email your audience with a link to an ActBlue page. And, unlike asking people to download apps, collecting email/phone information at political events is pretty commonplace, as are email solicitations. Checking mail is a core functionality of almost any mobile data device, be it smartphone, iPad or laptop. Devices will proliferate, change and converge, but email will almost certainly remain. The ubiquitous nature of email means people don't have to leave their comfort zone to give, provided you offer them a simple way to do so. And, because we've already borne the costs and seen the results of our innovation, we're in a better position to negotiate the sort of partnerships that Ruffini outlines.

In short, ActBlue didn't need to build, "something that can create a reality distortion field" (Orwellian!) to produce $174+ million for Democrats. We took a means that already existed (email/websites) and made it easy for people to apply it to a new space (political fundraising), while building in the flexibility that would allow it to grow and improve with changing circumstances (not easy!). As a result, ActBlue is now both an invaluable source of funds and a giant proving ground for candidates and best fundraising practices.

Finally, an insidery point: Ruffini is a consultant who necessarily makes his living by selling his insights and strategies. ActBlue is something fundamentally different. Because we're a political nonprofit that makes our tools available for free to all Democrats, we're creating of economies of scale that don't exist on the right. When we innovate, thousands of Democratic campaigns, consultants and committees benefit, and they don't have to pay a cent. I imagine Ruffini's innovations carry a far higher pricetag–man's got to eat–which hinders their adoption.

Last week, Ben Smith linked to a study (.pdf) by the Wesleyan Media Project on political spending in the 2010 cycle. The major findings: Republican-leaning interest groups outspent similar Democratic groups by 9:1, and hold a 3:2 advantage in overall spending. Put another way, with a 9:1 advantage in interest group spending, Republicans were only able to eke out a 3:2 advantage in total spending.

ActBlue is a major part of that story. The $80M we've sent to 3,600 Democratic candidates and committees this cycle stands in stark contrast to the "dark money" funneled through GOP outside groups. Unlike the constellation of 501c4 organizations and "Super PACs" that have helped Republicans, ActBlue is transparent. Our donations are contributions from inviduals to campaigns, not PAC donations. We report those donations to the FEC. Our numbers update in real time. In fact, while outfits like American Crossroads have flourished, GOP attempts to duplicate ActBlue's success have languished.

Those failures highlight the ridiculousness of attempts to brand Crossroads and Crossroads GPS as "Republican infrastructure." American Crossroads GPS (GPS stands for "Grassroots Policy Strategies;" you can almost hear the cynicism) is a 501c4 organization that doesn't disclose its donors. Original recipe American Crossroads is filed as (.pdf) an independent expenditure PAC. It can accept unlimited amounts of money, but can't give any to campaigns. In short, the groups themselves direct the funds, not the donors, and these groups can't help campaigns beyond the air war; that's neither "grassroots" nor "infrastructure."

Both groups owe a lot of their success to the Citizens United v. FEC decision by the Supreme Court and an opportunistic filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act by Senate Republicans. Moreover, the Crossroads model of fundraising is toxic among the electorate. As a short-term gamble to pick up seats while the RNC flounders, it may work. As a long-term strategy, it's self-defeating. After 11/2/2010, these groups will lose much of their raison d'etre, becoming a tax liability and a target for Democrats. If they continue to serve any purpose, it will be to game the GOP presidential nomination in 2011-12, which is shaping up to be an establisment v. grassroots contest. Targeted in critical early states, huge contributions from anonymous billionaires could do a lot to help a Mitt Romney-style candidate beat out a more populist foe.

In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

Ben Smith picked up on a blog post* by Lauren Hepler at the Center for Responsive Politics about out-of-state money, noting:

The numbers are interesting on the merits, though the general, bipartisan flow of money from big metropolitan areas to powerful members from smaller, poorer places is hardly a surprise. The data is also pretty much made for attack ads.

Ben's final point about attack ads is an example of how out of step our perceptions about virtuous politics are with reality. If we want to argue it logically rather than intuitively, we need to establish and defend three premises:

  1. All in-state or in-district money is inherently "better" than out-of-state/-district money
  2. Conversely, all out-of-state money is inherently pernicious or distorting.
  3. Campaign finance legislation, which is subject to influence by the same powerful interests whose power it's attempting to curtail, can be sufficiently well-written to be both politically viable and achieve its aims.

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about these premises, both collectively and in isolation.

To begin with, a government that is entirely funded by local interests more likely to create a gridlocked republic than a virtuous one, especially given current Senate rules. Moreover, it's an equilibrium state that's highly (and narrowly) cartelized and accordingly hostile to change, which further decreases the likelihood of meaningful action in Washington D.C. Finally, because barriers to entry are high, voter choice suffers. Out-of-state money creates the potential for change by giving candidates who are outside of local fundraising networks a viable path to elected office (See: Tea Party). That can be good or bad, but that's a question of the ends to which that money is applied, not the fact that it exists.

To take the second premise seriously, you have to ignore the "federal" aspect of our federal government. Legislators from outside your state or district often vote for or against laws that affect you. If you don't live in their state or district, your means of indicating your approval or disapproval of their actions are limited to activism or fundraising. And while there's a natural, tribal reflex against people from outside [arbitrary boundary] making themselves a part of the electoral process inside  [arbitrary boundary], the decisions we make at the polls affect them. It's a speech issue, and protected as such.

The third premise gets at the tension underlying Larry Lessig's "economy of influence" argument. As I wrote a long time ago, the problem with the argument is that it goes to great lengths to establish that Congress is broken, hopelessly captive to special interests, and so on. Then Lessig argues for federal legislation to address this issue. See the problem? If, as Lessig asserts, legislators have a clear idea of their self-interest (usually preceded by a $ sign), why on earth would any given leader act against it? At the most basic level, how do you persuade someone that money they've already gotten is less valuable than money they might get in the future? Unclear.

What really matters is not where the money comes from, geographically speaking, but what its source is and how clearly that information is tracked and disseminated. If Candidate X is extensively funded by the local chapter of Baby Eaters Anonymous, we should probably care about that more than the fact his opponent, Candidate Y, gets large checks from Americans for the Laughter of Children, based in the neighboring state. Or, put simply, the problem with Citizens United v. FEC isn't that it allows huge spending by corporate interests–the old system allowed that–but rather that it provides no disclosure requirements. That's why the fate of the DISCLOSE act (59-39! Stunning defeat!) is arguably more troubling than the ruling it addresses.

*The CRP post misuses the phrase "begging the question," which is a huge pet peeve of mine. To "beg the question" is to assume your conclusion as a premise and thereby make a circular argument, not to beg someone to ask you a question. Also, I stole the title of this post from a Bon Jovi song. That's just how I roll.

A few days ago, I wrote about the ways in which ActBlue makes donors nimble and campaigns competitive by helping resources get where they need to go, quickly. I used the Alaska Senate race as an example, and in response a spokesperson for the McAdams campaign emailed this statement along:

Because of ActBlue thousands of people, including Alaskans, were able to donate funds to the Scott McAdams for Senate Campaign. The groundswell of grassroots support helped generate even more momentum for the campaign in the days immediately following the Alaska primary election. It was a great way to illustrate how many people support Scott and is a reminder that individuals can really impact the way campaigns are funded.

I think the key word there is "illustrate." When you give through ActBlue, you're not just helping the candidate out with a little cash. You're also sending a signal to everyone watching those numbers that the support is there. Anyone with 30 seconds and access to the internet can see how their chosen candidate is doing.

Today, McAdams is closing in on Senator Mark Begich's 2008 ActBlue total, and Sen. Murkowski, the GOP incumbent defeated in her primary by Joe Miller, has launched a write-in campaign. In short, what was once a safe GOP seat is now a wide open race.

Your donations on ActBlue have a lot to do with that.

Jonathan Martin has a story on POLITICO about the Republican edge in third-party spending. The argument runs as follows: conservative groups like American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and the constellation of powerbrokers Yahoo called the Shadow GOP have outspent outside Democratic groups. That's true. Where Martin errs is when he equates that with Democratic donor disengagement and disarray:

Liberal-leaning organizations answer that it’s not a matter of desire but something more simple: They don’t have the money.

And that’s partly because, even after the historic accomplishments of the current Congress, some on the left are unhappy that priorities, such as a climate change bill, weren’t passed.

That strikes me as a misreading of the situation. For those of you who are political traditionalists, I'll note that the major Democratic committees, (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) all raised more in August than the major Republican committees. The Democratic committees also spent more and have more cash on hand. 

If you're curious about how outside groups are doing, let's compare some quick numbers. According to Justin Elliott of Salon, American Crossroads raised $2.6M in August, with $2.4M of that coming from just three billionaires. In contrast, ActBlue sent $4.2M to 1,422 Democratic candidates and committees, via 34,000 donations. It's true that American Crossroads does something different than ActBlue–they'll be making ad buys. We won't. Instead, we'll be sending money to people who make ad buys. That seems like a fairly minor difference, from the perspective of Martin's argument.

There are two things at work here, and neither of them are donor unhappiness.

The first is a change (a change that Martin's editors have noted) in how individuals relate to large institutions that's become an essential part of the zeitgeist. The Tea Party derives its support from a claim to represent authentic conservative values, rather than compromised establishment mores. ActBlue makes a less-ideological pitch: we send your money where you tell us to send it–provided you're sending it to a Democrat. But both ideas feed off the zeitgeist in different ways, and represent a shift away from the more traditional conduits that Martin quotes in his story. But it's a shift, not a diminution.

Second, a major factor behind support for Republican groups like American Crossroads is the sheer disarray of the Steele-driven RNC. In the table I linked to above, the RNC is the only body with a negative change in cash on hand, and the Republicans have been forced to compensate. In short, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Martin examines the lagging indicator on the Democratic side and the leading indicator on the Republican side, and then concludes that Democrats are off their game.

In the wake of the upset in the GOP DE-Sen primary, there's been a lot of chatter about what the Tea Party means, vis-a-vis the Republican Party. One of the most compelling takes, in my opinion, is that the Tea Party represents a decentralized web of Republican supporters, and that decentralization is the cause of much of the intra-TP conflict and the difficulty the Republican establishment has in co-opting that passion and using it to benefit their preferred candidates (See: Grayson, Trey; Castle, Mike).

This isn't a new story, though it may be one the Republicans haven't heard yet. The Democratic Party has already undergone many of these changes. The growth of online communities like DailyKos, Democratic infrastructure like ActBlue, and eventually the Obama wave had a lot of inputs–minority status and the old saw about necessity and invention, frustration among the base and Americans broadly–but the key point is that growth was largely uncoordinated. The rebranding of the DNC is a recognition of that reality, Natalie Foster, the DNC's New Media Director, told TechPresident's Nancy Scola:

It's not just about the DNC anymore. It's about the Democratic Party. [...] This could become that something that any kid could
draw in chalk in front of their house, that any college kid could riff
on.

That was my first thought as well, which is why I was surprised to see Ben Smith snark "this will turn things right around." While we're only a few weeks out from the election, the point of changes like these isn't to tip the scales in pivotal house races, it's to build a party that is tune with the changing tenor of American life. The same could be said of the growth of grassroots fundraising, or the White House's embrace of non-traditional media outlets. (Also, in fairness, Ben picked up Nancy's take.)

To return to my original point, while there may be an equivalence in process between Democrats and Republicans, I don't mean to suggest an equivalence in content. The Republican embrace of Kristolismo over the past two years has radicalized their base in a way that the Democratic resurgence did not. Embracing a base conditioned by years of opportunistic fear-mongering about "socialism," Islam, the deficit and terrorism seems likely to produce legislative outcomes that are significantly less benign than the healthcare reform bill.

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