Where to Put Your Campaign Money?, A Modest Proposal

A number of times over recent weeks I’ve had people write in and ask me who they should contribute money to for the 2018 midterm. In most cases, it’s not really a matter of particular candidates but both a bigger and smaller picture: Should I be contributing to particular candidates? The party committees (DCCC, DSCC, DNC, etc.)? The state parties? Various activist groups who in turn support candidates either directly or indirectly. All of these channels of funding play a critical role in a complex ecosystem of funding. But just where can you have the most effect?

This refocused my attention on a project that I put a lot of time into planning and then discarded late last year. The idea was a new publication that would be entirely dedicated to answering this question: where to put your money if you want to elect Democrats. Period. In this case, I mean this in the broadest sense. You may be focused solely on electing as many Democrats as possible. Or maybe you want to shift the Democratic party to the left or a more social democratic direction. Or perhaps your focus is global warming or unions or making the Democratic party look more like it’s voting base or a slew of other issues, which is disproportionately made up of ethnic minorities and women. Whatever your goal – and most people probably have some mix of these goals – if you want to help fund campaigns you still have the same basic need for information about where – quite apart from individual candidates or ideology – your money can have the greatest impact.

This would necessarily have been a separate publication from TPM. The mission, goals and so forth are different. It couldn’t be run by the same people or part of the same publication at all. And in this context I should note that there are lots of amazing publications and websites that do something kind of like this. Far and away the top of this list is DKos Elections, a simply phenomenal publication/resource which you probably already know about and if you don’t you should. For staying up today and seemingly every campaign everywhere it’s invaluable. There are a host of activist groups working on getting people to run and directing resources to candidates running not just for Congress but the much larger universe of state legislative and local races. Allegra Kirkland talked to a number of them in this article.

So there’s lots of good information out there. But my sense was that none of them quite have this brief. Some are tied to one strategy, one faction. Some endorse candidates. Some are more general campaign news sources. All of these are critical. But they’re not quite the same thing. And I think this ‘thing’ is key. Both for people who might give a couple hundred dollars over the course of a campaign cycle as it is to people who might give a few thousands or even tens or hundreds of thousands. It’s ultra-niche. But it’s an important niche. Some people I pitched the idea to compared it to a Guidestar for political giving. Sorta.

I get asked this a lot. Supposedly, I know a lot about this politics thing. But I know enough to know how little I actually know. Just as importantly, I’ve travelled enough in the political world over the last two decades to know how much money gets contributed on whims or impulse or because you’re the friend of a friend of someone who is having a fundraiser or simply on bad advice. And I mean this for people who give $100 and those who gives $100,000 or even $1,000,000.

Of course, it can be a perfectly good reason to contribute to a candidate you simply believe in and want to see in office. Maybe that’s the best reason. But if you’re thinking about broad ranging and enduring political change, that involves candidates who are inspiring and also uninspiring. It involves investments in infrastructure and party organizations – lots of stuff that is granular and unsexy and may only bear fruit two or three cycles down the road.

A sort of side note: years ago before I had much exposure to the upper echelons of the political world, I figured that the people who contributed big, big, big sums of money had advisors who had something like a full view into the intricacies of the political world and directed that money accordingly. You may or may not like what these folks were trying to do with the money. But I figured they knew what they were doing. They had ‘people’, as they say.

I’m here to tell you that ain’t so. Man, it so ain’t so. In most cases they have as little idea what’s going on as you and I. Sometimes they have advisors like I described, sometimes not. Same difference. Relatedly, the party committees assign people to advise their big donors. Same difference. They have information. But it’s not always great information. And critically, it’s inherently biased toward the interests of that committee. I don’t mean ‘biased’ in a corrupt or malevolent sense. But the DCCC has a job of electing members of the House. The DSCC, senators, etc.

To give you a bit more of an idea of what I had in mind, here’s what I wrote up as a prospectus of sorts last year. (One thing I was particularly hung up on is that the name. “CampaignROI” captured what I was looking to do and yet for a number of reasons just didn’t sound quite right.) One key point to the concept. It would be subscription only. No ads.

CampaignROI: a Prospectus

The web is bursting with political information: reporting, commentary, data – good and bad, left and right. There is too much campaign reporting for any one person to consume. But if you are fortunate enough to have the resources to contribute money to Democratic campaigns, there is no publication exclusively devoted to providing you with timely and actionable information you can use to target your resources most effectively. That is the mission of CampaignROI.

We will answer the most basic and critical questions with focused, specific and credible answers.

How good a shot does a particular candidate have at winning? That is the first but far from the only question. What would the impact be if they did win? What is the relative impact of more funds? A hot candidate may already have raised more money than they can hope to spend to good effect while small sums could make the critical difference for a lesser known candidate. What is the experience and ability of a candidate’s staff? Can they execute an effective campaign effort?

Every Democrat knows the party needs to gain control of more state governments. But which states are the most flippable? What are the key races in those states? And which states have party or campaign organizations with the capacity and experience to spend money and run campaigns effectively? Your committing your money to advance your values. We will provide you with the information to have the great impact possible.

We will not advocate for any candidate or faction within the Democratic Party. Our goal is to provide information which is as relevant to those who wish to push the party to the left or the right or are most focused on winning majorities.

How will we do it? We’ll field a team of four full-time reporters and researchers, talk to everyone and do the bidding ofB none. We’ll do meticulous original research to answer these questions in a systematic way. Every week we will deliver you clear, actionable information in a timely manner.

That was the idea. It’s still something I’d like to do though it’s very late, probably too late in this cycle to do it. The people who’ve asked me in the last few days I’ve sort of lamented the lack of good information and said they could do worse than finding an incumbent Democratic Senator running in a state Trump won and giving them money. There’s no particular genius to this advice. I just know how critical it is that all of them win and it’s not like the reelection of Heidi Heitkamp is going to be the cause that sets people on fire. So it’s great to make sure those folks have enough money to withstand everything the GOP will throw at them. But again, this is more a counsel of despair or a “you could do worse than” kind of advice than anything I feel good about telling people. Because I don’t have the information I’d like to have.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what you think of the concept. Drop me a line at our tips and comments email address above.