The Democratic Case for Super-Rich Donors

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President Obama and the Democrats have spent the last leg of the election cycle slamming Republicans for pouring millions into outside groups to run campaign ads. The GOP-allied groups are now vastly outstripping Democratic spending in the election, but it’s not only because GOPers have unleashed the floodgates. As Politico‘s Ben Smith reports, the Democrats’ lag in outside spending is also because Obama himself has discouraged deep-pocketed donors from giving to outside groups, beginning with the 2008 campaign.

“The leadership of the Obama campaign warned their donors against giving to outside groups – including many of the key issue groups that motivate progressives. The leadership in the White House has done the same thing,” said Erica Payne, one of the founders of the Democracy Alliance, a group of the largest liberal donors, who now heads the Agenda Project.??

Obama’s approach also stands in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s:

And Clinton’s former aides are some of those watching incredulously as Obama helplessly denounces outside money instead of encouraging Democratic donors, or even cultivating the kind of mega-donors who might spend in his support…

“When you’re in a fight—and we’re in a real fight—you want as much help as you can get from any quarter,” said the former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, who recruited mega-donors led by George Soros to give some $200 million to Democratic efforts in 2004. “It doesn’t seem to me that there’s been much encouragement from the White House for outside help.”

?As the story explains, Obama discouraged large donations to outside groups partly out of ideological reasons—wanting to change “business as usual” in Washington, relying instead on the unprecedented outpouring of support from small donors. But Smith also argues that disarming outside groups also allowed the Obama campaign to maintain tight, top-down control of their campaign message.

The problem is that such a campaign finance model is also subject to the whims of the public each election cycle. Obama didn’t need as many big donors to back his campaign in 2008 because he had enough from small ones to finance his campaign. But two years later, it’s clear that support from the base has waned and hasn’t translated into the same buckets of cash to compete with the GOP in 2010, even as Obama folded his campaign operation into the Democratic National Committee. It’s true that the DNC and other Democratic committees have outraised their Republican counterparts, but all of them have been blown out of the water by outside Republican groups. (To be sure, it isn’t fair to put all the blame on Obama: Democratic billionaires like George Soros could have decided to plunge in on their own but have decided to sit this one out.)

Herein lies the case for courting super-rich donors: it’s arguably easier to maintain their support by doing the kind of individual outreach that Clinton was well known for and that Obama is loathe to do, and they have greater party loyalty than any large swath of the public. Obama built up his massive war chest partly through the unusual cult of personality that swelled up around him. But it’s clear that the public can retract its outpouring of support as quickly as it gives it, and that popular support can swing wildly from one end of the political spectrum to the other in an increasingly polarized environment. Sure, the small donor model is democratic (small d) and egalitarian in principle. But within the current campaign finance system—where the few remaining restrictions on corporate contributions have been lifted—it’s a less reliable model for sustaining any political party or, really, any major public institution.


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