The virtual reality of small-dollar political fundraising

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By Tom Baxter

“We’re DESPERATE”

I’ve never given one red penny to a politician, but I’m on a lot of lists. So every day my inbox fills with entreaties like these, from every corner of the political map.

“This isn’t great, Friend”

The subject lines speak of the desperation of Democrat Phil Arballo, trying to upset Rep. Devin Nunes in California, and the worries of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, looking at the latest fundraising numbers. Some of them are “humbly asking” (Nancy Pelosi), some are “FREAKING out!!” (Raphael Warnock), some are exasperated we haven’t listened to them: “we tried to tell you 1..2..3..4..5..6 TIMES, Friend,” (Marco Rubio). But every one of them, Democrat and Republican, is counting on me to send them money.

It’s news when a politician brings in a big haul, like the $82 million former President Donald Trump raised through his various committees in the first half of this year. But we don’t often think about the ways this money is being extracted, and the impact on those it’s extracted from.

“You may truly be my only hope, Patriot” (Rudy Giuliani)

Of course we don’t take these overwrought appeals seriously, or we tell ourselves we don’t. But somebody does, or there wouldn’t be so many of them. Before the rise of the internet, small-dollar contributions were a negligible part of political fundraising compared to the business lobbies and big-pocket donors.

By 2016, swelled by online contributions to Bernie Sanders and other progressive Democrats, small-dollar donations made up 15 percent of all the money raised in that election cycle. In 2020, as Trump and other Republicans gained ground in the online competition for dollars, small-dollar donations rose to 22 percent of all the money raised.

To keep those dollars rolling in, fundraisers strive to make people feel that they’re valued and they belong. The Official Biden Approval Poll doesn’t ask for money, but I’ll bet responding to it would set the inbox alight with new appeals. Sometimes the candidate has just seen a list of contributors I’m not on, and is getting back to me about it. As if it’s personal. There’s a memo I’m supposed to have seen, a zoom I’m invited to. I don’t have to believe all of it, just enough to pull out my credit card.

“Only 100 patriots will see this”

Exclusivity sells in the hotel trade, so why shouldn’t it work in politics?

“Patriot,

“Can you keep a secret?

“President Trump has a special message for a few of his TOP supporters.

“In a time when the lying Fake News media and Big Tech corporations are working OVERTIME to SILENCE him, he knew he needed to speak DIRECTLY to YOU.

“This video is only available to the first 100 supporters who contribute to this email. HURRY, Patriot.”

It’s no surprise that the politicians who irritate the other side the most have had the most success with small-dollar donations in both parties. Internet political fundraising is a tribal activity, like meme stocks. For $25, or $50 or $100 — you have lots of choices — you can strike a blow for your side.

You might say this is a better way to finance elections than to have it concentrated in a few powerful hands. But it’s not so much an either-or situation. Small-dollar donations have gained as a percentage of total fundraising, but the loosening of campaign finance rules in recent years has given the big players broad new opportunities to throw their weight around. We’ve graduated to a system in which politicians can accumulate dollars across a wider spectrum than ever before.

“SAD! Every time we asked, you DECLINED. Will you join Trump’s social media site?”

In the meantime, you do wonder what subliminal effect this daily flood of desperation, urgency and neediness could have on the way we think about politics. These message don’t seem very consequential as we shovel them in the trash bin, but they have tremendous power reflected in the millions they generate.

Sometimes I wonder how much more crowded my inbox would become if, just once, I responded to one of those pitches and sent a politician money. But I only wonder about this in a hypothetical way.

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