The Folly of Just Throwing Money at Political Candidates

Laveta Brigham

Not all online donors are clicking Donate from their couch in response to viral videos. Plenty of people, wealthy and non-wealthy, are doing something different. I have met with groups of low-dollar donors who thoughtfully plan out to whom to give $25 or $50 over the course of an election […]

Not all online donors are clicking Donate from their couch in response to viral videos. Plenty of people, wealthy and non-wealthy, are doing something different. I have met with groups of low-dollar donors who thoughtfully plan out to whom to give $25 or $50 over the course of an election cycle. They reflect on their goals and their strategies for achieving their goals. Similarly, groups of wealthy giving circles do the same thing but at a much higher scale. They interview candidates as they might interview charitable organizations, seeking to invest in ones who show the most promise.

Going forward, if they want long-term power, political donors will need to invest their money not just in individual candidates but in organizations that are focused on building that long-term power. They need to hold organizations such as party committees and super PACs accountable for hiring top-notch leaders who can execute a long-term plan. The plan should focus on person-to-person organizing, offline and online. Online organizing doesn’t mean ads; it means relationship building. Grassroots organizing means no shortcuts, no gee-whiz scalable technological fixes. It means deepening relationships in communities. The donors themselves need to stop operating in crisis mode, thinking about nothing but the next election. They need to make a 10-, 20-, or 30-year plan.

When the country is in crisis, a 30-year plan might sound too gradual. I often think of how Dave Fleischer, a progressive organizer, responds to this point. He says that politics is like saving for retirement. Precisely because the stakes are so high, we don’t save for retirement by playing Powerball. We save by socking away a few bucks every month for our whole adult lives. But in elections, a lot of people—including very rich and otherwise savvy people—play the lottery every cycle and wait for something magical to happen. With enough money, they hope, an Amy McGrath or a Jaime Harrison just might win.

In theory, political parties could serve the role of Joseph. Local, state, and national parties could be a meeting place for rich donors, low-dollar donors, activists, volunteers, and candidates, working together on a long-term agenda. Essentially, that’s what a political party is designed to do. But if party organizations prove unfit for that role, then other groups must step up. That’s what the Koch family did. It brought other donors into its orbit, strategized about how to spend money effectively, and made long-term plans. Other donors must show similar discipline if they want to build a lasting vision for our country, rather than continuing to shovel money at losing campaigns.

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Eitan Hersh is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University and author of Politics Is for Power.

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