Can viral funding campaigns level the playing field in politics?

Grassroots funding is piling up behind plenty of Democratic campaigns this year, even those in which a candidate has yet to be named. Take the fund for Senator Susan Collins’s (R-ME) unnamed future Democratic opponent, which is crawling toward $4 million. The crowdfunding effort first made headlines when Collins called for an FBI investigation into sexual assault claims against then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before she would vote to confirm him. The fund raise, which seeks to unseat Collins in the next election, was an effort by local residents in Maine to pressure her to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. It is just one of many huge crowdfunded raises to make headlines this year.

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Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), who isn’t up for re-election until 2022, has raised $6.43 million this year as of September 30, to make sure she keeps her seat. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) took in $5.3 million over the same timeframe, more than twice what he raised in 2016. He isn’t up for re-election until 2020. Of course, politicians in the midterm race are seeing the biggest bump—Beto O’Rourke in Texas has famously raised over $70 million for his campaign.

Indeed, this money is putting firepower into races where candidates typically face little competition, turning them into battlegrounds. In California, Democratic candidate for Senate Andrew Janz has raised $8.3 million to challenge Republican incumbent Devin Nunes for a seat the latter has held since 2003. That’s in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Louie Campo, who in 2016 didn’t even raise enough money to file with the Federal Election Commission.

The intense divide between the parties has motivated average citizens to throw small bits of cash behind viral fundraising electoral campaigns around the country, making this typically sleepy midterm election one for the books. In mid-October, the money raised during this cycle boiled to over $3.9 billion, according to the Center For Responsive Politics—a new record. It’s a reflection of both a heated election cycle and the massive changes that campaign financing has undergone since 2010. While crowdfunding technology has been in use for over a decade, it’s only recently become ubiquitous. Technological advancement along with the popularization of e-commerce and the growth of private fundraising has created the perfect climate for small donations to make a big impact. The question is, how are these viral campaign windfalls affecting elections?

“The campaign funding process is extremely inegalitarian, and its gotten much much worse, thanks to a series of Supreme Court cases,” says Rick Hansen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. The most famous of the cases he refers to is Citizens United, the 2010 decision that upheld the ability of corporations to inject money into election campaigns. Another case, Speechnow.org v. FEC, allowed for the creation of “super” political action committees that don’t directly fund candidates or campaigns and, it was argued, can therefore raise unlimited funds. These organizations typically campaign on behalf of candidates and support them in other indirect ways. But it’s not just Supreme Court decisions that have led to this moment.

By the time of the Citizen United decision, politicians had already realized the massive opportunities in privately financing campaigns. In 2008, when Barack Obama made his first run for president, he refused the public financing option, choosing instead to raise unlimited outside money. He was the first major party candidate to do so since the fund was created in 1976. Obama went on to raise $750 million in campaign financing, while his Republican competitor John McCain, who chose the more restrictive public option, was only able to raise $87 million. In 2014, as president, Obama killed the public fund.

Now, comically large campaign war chests are the norm. In 2018, President Donald Trump’s campaign funding raised $950 million, while Hillary Clinton’s campaign funding surpassed $1 billion. The shifting campaign financing landscape has meant that corporations and wealthy donors, who can shovel large amounts of cash to a particular candidate, have more power to propel a winning candidate.

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Hansen says crowdfunding allows less affluent individuals to give their candidate of choice a fighting chance—though it has its limits. “The rise of the small-donor, internet-fueled campaigning doesn’t displace the super wealthy, it just serves as a counterweight,” says Hansen.

Since 2016, CrowdPAC, the crowdfunding platform supporting the fund raise for Senator Collins’s opponent, has seen its user base grow 400%. Meanwhile, ActBlue, a political action committee that makes crowdfunding tools explicitly for Democratic candidates, has funneled more than $3 billion to candidates in four years. Its average donation size ranges between $35 and $40, but that figure has been ticking upward as the midterm election nears. In September alone, driven in part by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Justice Kavanaugh, Americans donated $184,841,230 to candidates using ActBlue’s tools.

The people’s choice

What’s particularly interesting about the small donation revolution is that it has given legitimacy to candidates that may not have ordinarily been supported by institutional political organizations like the Democratic National Committee. For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used grassroots fundraising and campaign tactics to beat longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. In the months since winning the primary, she has raised $1.8 million in her bid for the House seat. As of September, her Republican opponent Anthony Pappas had raised a mere $1,935.

Some Democrats have complained that giving enormous amounts of funding to candidates in regions that tend to vote Republican is a waste. A recent New York Times article called out O’Rourke in particular as a source of Democratic ire. Though he has gained massive ground in Texas, he is still expected to lose to Cruz, according to polls. “It’s great that O’Rourke has inspired so many people and raised so much money, and if he can spend it all effectively in Texas, he is well within his rights to do so,” Democratic strategist Matthew Miller told the New York Times. “But he could have a huge impact for the party by sharing some of it with the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], so it could be spent in states where candidates just need a little extra to get over the hump.”

Hansen disagrees with the concern that viral campaigns like O’Rourke’s are taking resources away from other candidates. He says there isn’t a limit on how much money can be drummed up for a campaign. “We’re not talking about people making a life decision to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars, we’re talking about people deciding whether they’re going to part with $20 or $50,” he says. That sort of money isn’t hard to move, he says, noting that other candidates are not getting the same boost because they aren’t charming their constituents. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DNCC) might like to move a little more money their way, Hansen suggests the onus is really on the individual candidate to make a connection with voters.

“It’s not clear that people would be parting with their money if they were not inspired,” he says.

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This concern over viral campaign funding is partially rooted in the fact that the money is pouring in from across state lines. In 2018, 82.4% of contributions on Crowdpac’s platform went out of state. And it may be going to candidates that the DNCC wouldn’t necessarily chose. What is most remarkable about the rise of crowdfunding in campaign funding is its ability to put party nominations in the hands of individuals, rather than political factions.

Furthermore, distributing money to unlikely candidates like O’Rourke may have wider-ranging effects. “Even if O’Rourke loses, if he loses narrowly, his candidacy might pull some Democrats running for Congress or state or local office over the finish line in a way that they never would have had without him participating. It’s not really clear that it’s a waste of money if he ultimately doesn’t capture the seat,” says Hansen.

O’Rourke could also decide to send some of his leftover funding to support future Democratic candidates in the state.

Shadow money

The increase in cross-border small donations isn’t just an intra-party concern. It’s causing tensions between parties as well. In a recent tweet, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) accused Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke of taking money from donors in California and New York, affixing the hashtag #dontcaliforniamytexas alongside an image of the Hollywood sign edited to say, “Betowood.”

Though out-of-state funding is a component of every election cycle, some Republicans, like Cruz, are using this idea that money is coming in from more liberal areas as a cudgel in their campaign messaging. But it’s not just Democrats bringing in money in from out of state.

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The Texas Tribune analyzed campaign donations to Cruz and O’Rourke between January and June of this year and found that 47% of individual donors who contributed to the Cruz campaign came from out of state. Only 33% of individual donor campaign contributions to O’Rourke came from out of state. As the report notes, those figures don’t account for $4.3 million (Cruz) and $9.3 million (O’Rourke) of donations under $200 that are not required to report their donors, making it unclear exactly how much money is coming from outside interests.

“In the end, any strategic advantage that either candidates can find, they will use, especially in a race that is perceived to be closer than expected,” says Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research at the University of Texas Polling Project. “I’ll put it this way: [Texas governor] Greg Abbott is not asking where Lupe Valdez raised her $300,000. He’s not even mentioning her, because it’s irrelevant to his campaign, and he’d like to keep it that way.” Valdez, formerly county sheriff in Dallas, is running as a Democrat for governor of Texas, a state that has had a Republican governor since 1995.  Her opponent, Greg Abbott, has raised significantly more money than she has.

Money isn’t everything

The role of out-of-state money may be overplayed. “Having enough money to get your name out there effectively is a necessary but not sufficient condition to getting elected,” says Hansen.

In 2016, Jeb Bush famously spent $130 million during the primary race, and it didn’t buy him the Republican nomination. In Florida’s gubernatorial primary, Democratic candidate Jeff Greene, a real estate mogul, came in late to the race, but spent $29 million of his own money on campaign efforts to try and pull ahead. In the end, the Democratic nomination went to Andrew Gillum, who was behind in the polls leading up to the vote. Likewise, Adam Putnam, who was fighting for the Republican nomination in Florida’s gubernatorial race, outraised Ron DeSantis, who ultimately clinched the nomination. “That’s also why self-funded campaigns don’t do as well as people would expect,” says Blank.

At the end of the race, candidates need more than messaging, they need voters to care about them. That is why grassroots funding, small donations from locals, is so compelling. “You need people to buy in,” says Blank. “If they’ve already bought in with their money, then they’re going to buy in with their vote.”

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