The pestering and hectoring, the warnings of doom and promised ecstasy, of Democratic fundraising emails has become something between an inside joke and a genuine annoyance for a lot of the Democratic faithful. I’ve seen a few comments or even articles since Nov. 8 saying that now that the midterm is done … well, something must be done about it. I’ve never had a clear read about just how much people are up in arms about this. After all, they keep sending them because they work.
But there’s a more specific issue to be discussed.
The way Americans finance political campaigns has changed drastically in recent cycles. Indeed, the two parties now finance their campaigns is dramatically different ways. And that’s the key. Big picture, Democrats now routinely crush Republicans in small-donor and even hard-money political giving (more on the difference in a moment). Republicans make up the shortfall with totally unregulated contributions from a relatively small number of billionaire families.
Of course, maybe it’s the reverse. Maybe Republicans now have permanent billionaire-class funding and Democrats are making up the difference with small donors. But it’s really the same difference: American election funding is now a mirror of America’s lopsided political economy. In most of the key Senate contests this year, Democrats raised a ton more money than their Republican counterparts. Republicans made up the difference with vast spending by super PACs driven by mega-donor contributions. Those annoying emails work and Democratic fortunes depend on them.
Just to give one detail for illustration: In the third quarter of 2022, the Senate Leadership Fund, effectively controlled by Mitch McConnell, raised $111 million. It had already raised roughly the same amount in the preceding quarters of the 2022 election cycle. This money came almost exclusively in seven- and eight-figure contributions, some of which passed through multiple entities to obscure their ultimate sources. The concentrations of money and billionaire dominance led to the very Citizens United-era standoff between McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund and Peter Thiel over who would take responsibility for Thiel-protege Blake Masters’ floundering campaign.
Of course, it’s not totally one or the other. Democrats have a few big billionaire donors and Republicans still get a lot of money from small donors. On paper, George Soros is the single largest megadonor and of course he’s a Democrat. But even this general exception to the rule can be misleading because a much lower percentage of Soros’s giving goes into actual campaigns. The big picture is that billionaire giving is very lopsided.
Indeed, it’s important not to get too focused on “small donors,” which generally means contributions of $200 or less. A successful lawyer who writes a check for $1,000 is probably more like a small donor than the Uihlein family, which contributed more than $50 million. The $1,000 is almost certainly contributed as regulated “hard money,” whereas the big mega-donor contributions are part of the post-Citizens United free-for-all. In relative terms $1,000 is more like $100 than $100 million. The character of the giving is more alike too. Your $1,000 check isn’t going to get you a sit-down with the candidate or help with that regulatory problem you’re wrestling with. You don’t have any illusions that you’re a kingmaker.
My own experience of this is probably different from yours. As a matter of policy, I don’t contribute to political campaigns. So there’s no tug or guilting. I’m not giving regardless. At the same time, I keep myself subscribed to many of the lists because I actually want to see what they’re saying. For me it’s an aspect of covering the campaigns. This cycle, for I think the first time, I got a few texts from Raphael Warnock’s campaign, which for reasons I can’t quite explain I experienced as a completely outrageous affront to my privacy and dignity as a sentient being. But whatever. It is what it is.
The point is: Those annoying emails aren’t going anywhere because they work. But more importantly, they’re what keep Democrats viable in the era of unlimited campaign contributions, which is increasingly dominated by a couple handfuls of families which give overwhelmingly to Republicans.