Political Fundraising & St. Augustine

The mainstream media, of which this journal is a part, relies on reporting, on evidence, on weighing a variety of opinions on controversial topics, etc., and generally I think the MSM does a fine job. Certainly, the press makes all politicians of all ideological stripes uncomfortable and accountable, which is an undeniably good thing. But, every once in awhile, you find a front-page article that misses the obvious because a reporter has an intellectual bias.

This morning’s front-page, above-the-fold article by Paul Kane in the Washington Post is headlined: "Democrats Are Jarred by Drop In Fundraising" and Mr. Kane points to two proximate reasons for the drop, citing "complacency among their rank-and-file donors and a de facto boycott by many of their wealthiest givers." Actually, the boycott is somewhat self-inflected as Democrats rightly made a decision not to accept money from financial firms that participate in the TARP bailouts: Some things are more important than money and any connection between TARP recipients and Democratic coffers and there is not enough money in the world to sponsor an ad campaign that would off-set such a lethal linkage.


The real reason Democratic fundraising has gone down is President George W. Bush, or more precisely, his absence. Which is to say that the Washington Post reporter needed to question an Augustinian scholar to understand why the Democratic contributions have fallen off. People are more easily motivated by being against something than being for something. So, for the past eight years, Democratic fundraising appeals started with some variation of the sentence, "Can you believe what George W. Bush is trying to do now…" Because the Democratic base was disposed to believe bad things about Bush, that opener drew them in. Now, Republicans are firing up their base with similar appeals about President Barack Obama.

As well, as a candidate, Obama really was all things to all Democrats. Now, with the actual task of governance in hand, different groups of his supporters will be disaffected for one reason or another. Hispanics may be upset that he put health care reform ahead of immigration reform. Pro-choice groups strongly dislike the abortion-reduction language the President uses, even while we centrist Catholics applaud it. So, it is much easier to get everybody on board when you run on a contentless noun like "change" but once you have to add some content to that noun by proposing specific changes, some people become disaffected.

There is another part of the story that the reporter did not cover but which might explain the shortfall. In the past two election cycles, Democrats picked up 14 Senate seats and it is not inconceivable that donors are writing checks directly to those Senators now. Imagine a fat-cat donor in 2006 who can see the handwriting on the wall and knows the Democrats are about to win big, so he wants to ingratiate himself with the in-coming party. But, how to know which candidates are really going to win? So, he just writes a large check to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and let’s them decide how to allocate the resources. Today, he knows who won and can write a check directly.

Money is important to campaigns but it is rarely decisive. A challenger needs enough to establish name recognition and to draw a contrast with the incumbent but the fact is that voting patterns rarely change, most people vote the way they did last time, and so incumbents are rarely defeated. Unless, of course, an issue or a scandal makes people re-evaluate their own vote last time. Health care reform, as evidenced by the town hall meeting mania this summer, might prove to be such an issue if the GOP can harness the anger of those who oppose it without scaring the centrists who are concerned but not angry. But, the GOP has an advantage this election that they didn’t last time: a presidential target. And, that, more than anything accounts for the relative changes in fundraising.



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