The virtual reality of fundraising policy for small dollars

By Tom Baxter


I have never given a single penny to a politician, but I am on many lists. So every day, my inbox is filled with pleas like these, from every corner of the political map.

“That’s not great, man”

The thematic lines speak of the despair of Democrat Phil Arballo, who is trying to upset Rep. Devin Nunes in California, and the concerns of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is analyzing the latest fundraising numbers. Some of them are “Humbly asking” (Nancy Pelosi), some are “Flipant !!” (Raphael Warnock), some are exasperated that we haven’t heard them: “We tried to tell you 1..2..3..4..5..6 TIMES, friend” (Marco Rubio). But all of them, Democrats and Republicans, count on me to send them money.

It’s news when a politician gets a big run, like former President Donald Trump’s $ 82 million raised through his various committees during the first half of this year. But we often don’t think about how this money is extracted and the impact on which it is extracted.

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

Of course, we don’t take these excessive appeals seriously or tell ourselves no. But someone yes, or there wouldn’t be so many. Before the rise of the Internet, small dollar contributions were an insignificant part of political fundraising compared to business lobbies and large pocket donors.

In 2016, augmented by online contributions to Bernie Sanders and other progressive Democrats, small dollar donations accounted for 15% of all money raised in this election cycle. In 2020, as Trump and other Republicans gained ground in online competition for dollars, small dollar donations increased to 22% of all money raised.

To keep these dollars in circulation, fundraisers strive to make people feel valued and belonging. Biden’s official approval poll doesn’t ask for money, but I bet to answer it, the inbox would light up with new appeals. Sometimes the candidate just sees a list of collaborators I’m not on, and repeats to me about it. As if it were personal. There’s a note I’m supposed to have seen, a zoom I’m invited to. I don’t have to believe it all, just enough to take out my credit card.

“Only 100 Patriots Will See It”

Exclusivity is sold in the hospitality industry, why shouldn’t it work in politics?


“Can you keep a secret?

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

“At a time when the fake media of Fake News and Big Tech corporations are working A LONG TIME to silence him, I knew I had to speak DIRECTLY to YOU.

“This video is only available to the first 100 followers who collaborate on this email. HURRY, Patriot.”

Not surprisingly, the most irritating politicians on the other side have been most successful with small dollar donations from both sides. Raising political funds on the Internet is a tribal activity, like memes. For $ 25, $ 50, or $ 100 (you have many options), you can do a side kick.

It could be said that this is a better way to finance elections than to concentrate them on powerful hands. But this is not so much one situation as the other. Small dollar donations have earned as a percentage of total fundraising, but the loosening of campaign funding rules in recent years has given big players new opportunities to throw their weight around. We have graduated into a system in which politicians can accumulate dollars across a wider spectrum than ever before.

“SAD! Every time we asked you, YOU WOULD NOT DECLINE. Will you join Trump’s social network? “

In the meantime, ask yourself what subliminal effect this daily flood of despair, urgency, and need might have on our way of thinking about politics. These messages do not seem very consistent as we throw them in the trash, but they have enormous power reflected in the millions they generate.

Sometimes I wonder what my most crowded inbox would be if, only once, I responded to one of those releases and sent money to a politician. But I only wonder about it in a hypothetical way.

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