Not About Bribery
9 June 2012, 1:45 PM
I’d like y’all’s opinion of notion that I started noodling with due largely to Jon Bernstein’s commentary on the marginal value of campaign dollars. The idea, obvious enough, is that while an incumbent president’s reelection campaign can raise gazillions of dollars easily enough, it is also that campaign that will find it hardest to actually change votes with its expenditures. Almost everyone in the country knows the President of the United States, or at least they think they do, and neither ten ads nor a thousand will change their minds at this point. At the other end of the scale, it’s hard for a city councilor to raise money for a State Assembly seat’s primary, but since almost none of the voters know anything about either the city counselor or the sitting Assemblyman, there’s a lot of room for persuasion. This is the sort of thing that seems obvious, and is obvious, once you think of it, if you do think of it.
This is not to say that if you are looking to influence policy outcomes, you should never donate to the reelection campaign of an incumbent president. You can make more of a difference in a primary campaign for a seat in your State Assembly, but then if your candidate wins election, that person will only make a little difference in the seat. Individual state legislators are not terribly powerful, and in many states the sum total of a rookie representative’s power is in voting for the Party Leadership. And in general campaigns, people at the top of the tickets (Governors, Presidents, etc) can have coattails, too. So you may want to pick your spot along the spectrum of ambition, where your preferred candidate is already well-known enough to be running for (and have a chance at winning) a somewhat powerful position, and yet a blank enough slate to a good portion of voters to make the campaign money useful in persuasion.
And, of course, if you don’t have a very large chuck of money ready to donate, you can get a bigger effect by aggregating your money together with other people’s money, often through some sort of issue or interest group. The aggregation drawback is that the people need to agree on which candidates to support at which levels, and it’s easier to sell your organization’s donors on somebody they have heard of—and by the rule I was talking about up there, the more the donors have heard of a candidate, the less useful their donations are. And, of course, the more money your group spends on deciding which candidate to donate to, the less you have to donate.
Digression: When I talk about donating money, here, much the same applies to donating time and effort. It’s not quite the same, but much of this stuff applies to phone bank hours, going door-to-door, yard signs and even conversations with acquaintances. Even the concept of aggregating is applicable, although of course there are things that more easily transfer across the country (money, telephone calls) and things that don’t (yard signs, conversations). One of the odd things in 2008 was the way in which people in Connecticut could make campaign calls from their home lines to Indiana and North Carolina through the campaign organization; this kind of donation isn’t entirely lossless but it’s impressively close. Anyway, if the money-in-politics stuff squicks you out, you can substitute phonebank work, if you like, or I suppose there could be some sort of organized Patch-bombing. End Digression.
Are you still with me? Jon wrote about Money and 2012 over at his Plain Blog, and made a point that so far (and we’re a good way through the primary cycle) most of the Big Money has been going along partisan lines, rather than based on issues. I don’t know how accurate this is (he’s not a reporter, and doesn’t go through the reports and make calls the way a reporter does) (or at least the way I imagine a reporter does, and the way some reporters actually do, right?) but it brings up this notion that I am going to finally start asking about. Ready?
Could issue-based groups do some serious work in cross-party primaries to nominate heterodox people? Here’s what I mean: Find an open US House seat that is most likely going to be in the Other Party’s hands after the general election. Find a member of the Other Party who is willing to cross the line on Your Issue. Dump a million dollars into the primary campaign. By the time the general election comes around, you will probably have two candidates who agree with you on your issue, or perhaps three candidates, two of which will split the Other Party’s vote, which is even better. Most likely, though, you now have a U.S. Rep who (a) knows that your organization gave her some absurdly high percentage of her campaign budget for the primary, and (2) already is in sympathy with you on one issue, and is certainly going to be willing to chat with you about your more general concerns.
The problem, as you’ve spotted, is that in today’s political world, it’s not going to be easy to find that person in the Other Party who agrees with you on that one issue, while having that one issue be important enough to raise a million dollars on. Abortion rights, for instance, is almost certainly out now, while this sort of thing was fairly common for those groups a couple of decades ago. Similarly, marriage equality is out at the US House level (tho’ more useful and potentially more doable at the State Senate level in a blue state) as are collective bargaining, climate change preparation and (probably) immigration. My idea is Net Neutrality—I don’t think that enough primary voters in the Other Party care about Net Neutrality to make it impossible to find a plausible Mayor or State Senator who either already supports it or is willing to support it. And it’s a reasonably important issue, which may well see legislation come up soon; it would probably be worth diverting a million dollars of Presidential Re-Election money (of low marginal utility anyway) to change the text of that legislation or have an additional aisle-crosser on it.
And, given the current rules, it should be possible to set all this up behind sufficient dummy screens that the voters in the district won’t know why such-and-such a group supports the candidate in question, while the candidate in question would very much know why. Which would have the desired effect, I would think. I’m guessing the money could be raised, and I think that is probably the best issue for the pin. What do you think?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,