The Election

What to Expect When You’re Electing

Small donations comprise more than half of President Obama’s war chest. Small donors, on the other hand, constitute some of the world’s most overwhelmed email recipients. But all that follow-up isn’t just about cash—it’s about subtle changes being made inside your head.

Rafaël Rozendaal, jello time .com, 2007. Courtesy the artist.

With the presidential election looming, you decide to donate some money to your Favorite Candidate. Since the 1970s, American politics has enjoyed a romance with the small donor, which you became with your 50-buck donation to Favorite Candidate. Fifty bucks, because you’re not wealthy, semi-wealthy, or even wealthy-curious. But you do want to bolster your candidate’s chances. In 2012, you’re one of millions of anonymous people who’ll give less than $200 in a federal election, comprising between one-third and one-half of campaign financing. Afterward, you settle back, confident in the political process. You’ve done your part. Now others can do theirs.

The phone rings.

Hi, this is Favorite Candidate. Thank you for your contribution, and could you give another $50? We’re desperate to show the other guys what we really stand for. You hang up. The next day, an email arrives. The Other Guy has said something egregious which cannot stand. The next day it goes, It’s the end of the quarter and we really want our finances to look good.

You joke about this attention with your friends and coworkers : Ha ha, I gave money to Favorite Candidate, and I got my free gift right away, which was 30 to 40 emails asking me for more money, ha ha. You post to Facebook about your annoyance: Stop calling me.

But maybe this isn’t something that we, denizens of the civic sphere, should be joking about or merely blowing off steam to our online friends about, because maybe, just maybe, it’s something that hurts us, though in a way we don’t recognize yet.

To understand why Favorite Candidate’s efforts are going to backfire, it’s necessary to understand why Favorite Candidate is bugging you, the small donor, for money in the first place. They need the money, obviously; the modern campaign—from the run for president all the way down to state-level races—is an expensive proposition. Plus, after the Citizens United Supreme Court case, campaigns are battling unlimited, anonymous big money, and they have to compete against it somehow.

But you’ve already given money, you say. Why do they keep bugging me for more?

In a way, the answer is the same: they need the money, and you’ve already donated. To them, you’re just another number in a spreadsheet, and crunching the numbers tells them that past donations are the most reliable predictor of future donations. What you’ve done is what you’ll do.

But there’s a deeper answer. In the early 1970s, reforms encouraged presidential candidates to gather money from small donors (defined as those who give in aggregate $200 or less), the amounts of which would be matched by public funds. Who were these people?

“[They] tend to be very active in politics—to vote, to talk about politics, to write their politicians, etc.,” Steve Ansolabehere, a political scientist at Harvard, told me in an email. “They tend to be educated and higher income. Donating money is one of many actions that politically active people take. Among Democrats the small donors tend to be somewhat more liberal than the typical Democratic voter. Among Republicans the small donors tend to be somewhat more conservative than the typical Republican voter.”

Other than that, “We don’t know an awful lot about them,” said Michael Malbin, a political scientist at SUNY Albany and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), when I got him on the phone. To get more info, “you’d have to do surveys, and to do good surveys you’d need to identify them, but we only have names and addresses of people who give more than $200 in federal elections.” Most of what we do know comes from surveys that CFI conducted of donors in state elections where they could be identified because disclosure thresholds in those states were lower. Those donors overwhelmingly give money for reasons that have to do with their view of what’s good for society.

Obama hits you up more than once because it costs him next to nothing to do so.

This type of small donor has played a big role in financing presidential campaigns. For Jimmy Carter, 38 percent of his money came in small donations; it was 40 percent of Gerald Ford’s. Amazingly, it was 60 percent for Ronald Reagan in his 1984 re-election. Yet in the informational antediluvian era of 1976 and 1984, obtaining that money was time-intensive and expensive. Hitting up a donor the second time cost just as much as the first. The Internet changed all that, providing tools that Howard Dean pioneered in 2004, but which Barack Obama rolled out far more extensively in 2008. Obama hits you up more than once because it costs him next to nothing to do so.

Yet he needs you. A couple of stand-out numbers help tell the tale. During the 2008 election, 34 percent of Obama’s donations came in amounts less than $200. In 2012, it’s now more than half of his money. On Oct. 1, his campaign announced that they had received the ten millionth donation of the 2012 campaign. Note that this wasn’t ten million donors, it was ten million donations.

Because you’ve gotten the calls, you already knew that Obama’s fundraising machine hits people up more than once. The campaign’s fundraising is built to do this. In the eyes of the machine, if you give $50, you’re still $150 under the public disclosure limit, and even if you hit $200, you’re well under the individual-giving maximum of $2500. Not that Obama uses public matching funds—he opted out in 2008 and again in 2012.

Also, history is on the side of the Obama money vacuum. In 2008 slightly more than half of Obama’s donors who gave an aggregate of $200 or more started out giving amounts less than $200. In other words, the Obama fundraisers were able to up-sell a substantial percentage of givers. Overall, the repeat donors were lucrative, giving $100 million to Obama in 2008. The campaign makes it easy, allowing you to save your credit card information at Just like shoppers do at their favorite online retailer.

Yet there’s a bigger reason why Favorite Candidate keeps calling: Fundraising has become a form of stealth get-out-the-vote strategy. Not because they use your donations to buy pizzas for dopey students, but because donating gives you a stake in a candidate’s outcome. A joint paper produced by CFI, the Brookings Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that eyed the future of publicly financed campaigns in the age of the Internet small donor put donating-as-political-seed this way: “The evidence seems to suggest that giving and doing are reciprocal activities: volunteering stimulates giving, while giving small amounts seems to heighten nonfinancial forms of participation by people who feel more invested in the process.”

“It’s really a commonly accepted community organizing device,” Michael Malbin told me. As a grad student in Chicago, he went to see radical organizer Saul Alinsky, who talked about getting poor people to sign up for 25 or 50 cents (about three bucks today). “The big deal isn’t how much the money means to the organization but what it does to the person,” Malbin remembered Alinsky saying. Malbin said he’s seen only the Obama campaign build an integrated money mobilizing machine on these precepts. Romney hasn’t done it and Congressional campaigns haven’t done it, and it’s probably rare state-wide elections.

Bombarding previous donors until they give again is a strategy designed with the old small donor in mind. Nobody knows what it will do to the new small donor, whose participation in the system is fragile.

Along those same lines, a couple of other think tanks (such as CFI, Brookings, AEI, the Brennen Center, and Democracy 21) have proposed reforms that would boost political participation (they suppose) by matching small donations to campaigns with public funds. If you give money to a campaign, some or all of it would be matched, and there would be no spending limits for candidates (so they would not have to opt out of public financing in order to spend more and be competitive, which is now the case). This would stimulate giving by more people, they argue, and would also make candidates reach out to a wider range of constituents. A much-discussed example is New York City’s donation-matching program, which has gotten a more diverse group of people to donate, perhaps because it makes them believe they can have a larger impact, perhaps because candidates reached out more widely, knowing there was more money in it for them if they did. The logic of the reforms is that if more people feel as if they had a personal stake in the system, more of them would vote. The irony is that in order to make government by the people, you ask the government to help people give money.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not these reforms are possible. Instead, I want to make the observation that Obama’s campaign psychology (as well as this proposed reform) flip the relationship between money and political participation. The old small donor is someone who gives money because he or she’s politically active and ideologically determined. The new small donor gives in order to have a stake in the political system; they become ideological because they’ve given money. Here’s the problem: bombarding previous donors until they give again is a strategy designed with the old small donor in mind. Nobody knows what it will do to the new small donor, whose participation in the system is fragile.

I was telling Michael Malbin about my sense that fundraisers are getting out of bounds, that this will be a problem if they’re hoping to increase participation. Maybe you can bug people who are already committed; not so people who are dipping their toes in for the first time. “Yeah, it’s annoying,” he said. “It clogs things up.” Malbin admitted he keeps a special email account just for political junk-mail. He speculated that persistent messaging may actually bring more people into the system than it pushes away, but he acknowledged it’s an empirical question. No one really knows.

The fundraisers will say, As long as we’re raising money, it’s all good. But where they know a fair amount about people who donate repeatedly (and especially if they cross the $200 threshold), they don’t know anything about the people who walk away. Do they vote? Do they vote in local elections, too? And rather than reach out to those emerging citizen donors, the people who give money because it’s what a citizen does, fundraisers treat them like wallets to be bled dry. It’s easier to opt out of communications from a Viagra dealer than a political campaign.

The first time I gave was 2004, then in 2008 and 2010. I’m really more of the old-style small donor—I’ve given money to non-local Congressional races, for instance. Never huge amounts, though.

Each time I’ve given money, I’ve received a flood of email and phone calls leading up to the election as if I had more money to give. Annoying. Then, after the 2010 election was over, it didn’t stop. Evidently, my contact info was sold or shared within the political party or from client to client within the same online fundraising shop. Months after the election, I was still hearing from state-level races in places I’d never heard of. Naturally, I clicked on the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the emails, an action that stopped the spam from Candidate A. But then I started getting mail from Candidate B. On two separate occasions, because simply clicking the “unsubscribe” link didn’t work, I had to call the fundraising consultants to get my address globally removed from their lists.

This year, I’ve sat out making any donations at all, because I don’t want to get pestered. Better not to have my name in the system at all.

Here are some concrete things I think that small donors should expect, and if they don’t get them, they’re welcome to join me in not giving money.

  1. I expect that fundraisers and campaigns will give me the choice about how often they contact me. “Never” should be the default. If I say I don’t want to hear from you, that means I don’t want to hear from you.
  2. I expect that campaigns aren’t going to sell, share, or trade my information with other campaigns or parties. It’s my choice to make, not theirs. I realize that my information is part of a quid pro quo between politicians and the parties—that’s not my deal, though. According to election law, my small donation makes me exempt from public scrutiny. But you know what? I didn’t sign up for private scrutiny, either.
  3. I expect to be able to modulate the frequency of communications. Maybe something happens during the course of the campaign and I suddenly want to plug into the thread of communications, get my fill, and go back to relative silence. Allow me to do that.
  4. Campaigns are short-lived enterprises, but politics, the civic sphere, political parties, and the responsibilities of citizenship live on, so I expect campaigns to play the long game, too. Calling me repeatedly for a few dollars is a short-term strategy. What’s your long-term plan?

Fundaisers might respond by saying, For every burned-out or pissed-off small donor, there are 50 more who haven’t been contacted yet, and five of them will hand over some cash. But campaigns should bear in mind that pissed-off American consumers with Internet connections are some of the most easily organized people on the planet.

It depresses me that today’s political action, even citizenship, is defined by donating money; that when I entered the political donor class, I felt it, and not voting, was a mark of adulthood; that voting, abiding by laws, staying informed, signing petitions and all that are nice and citizen-ish but do not dent power; that political participation hinges on a financial transaction; and that it’s my experience on the other side of that transaction that matters most, that the public sphere should operate according to my consumerist expectations.

But hey: I didn’t build this retail political world. But I do have to shop here.

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard