Friday, December 9, 2011

Competing with McPolitics

I have been watching the changing dynamics of politics and campaigns play out for some time now. Fundamental shifts are taking place right under our feet thanks to the McCain Feingold campaign finance laws (along with its companion legislation) and to the landmark Citizens United court decision of 2009. They have upended political financing norms, with the net result being much weaker state parties, very powerful special interest organizations, and candidates whose election success will depend even more on who controls the most money rather than grassroots activists. Money buys advertising; advertising sways voters. When grassroots activists don't have organized channels through which to work and amplify their voices, they cease to matter. All that matters is who has the most money and can spend it the best to sway public voters.
This concept is foreign to most Minnesota Republican activists. Because Minnesota is a caucus state, grassroots activists play a larger role than they do in a primary state. Historically, the Minnesota Republican Party has been one of the most thoroughly developed state GOP party organizations in the nation, with the most extensive voter ID lists, the biggest, most active grassroots population, the largest in-house fundraising capacity and the most influence over elections and legislative agendas precisely because it has the ability to defend the candidates endorsed by its delegates and advocate for the platform developed by its delegates. The power of the party organization really is the expression of the power of grassroots people across the state.

Maintaining and improving all of the operations that go into doing those things takes money. A lot of money. Until McCain-Feingold was passed and vetted through court cases, the ability for the state party to raise money from small and large donors was largely unmatched because of its strength and tradition. However, three things have collided to challenge the strength of this state party and state parties throughout the country:

1. The regulations and statutes contained in McCain-Feingold coupled with the Citizens United decision;

2. Strategies implemented by the Democrats to challenge and litigate as much as possible in the campaign and election process;

3. The protracted recession.

First, McCain-Feingold and its companion legislation increased reporting requirements by party entities, and more strictly separated and defined how state parties could use the funds they raised. Donations are separated into state and federal accounts with a $10,000 individual contribution limit placed on federal donations. This makes it more time consuming and expensive to raise money for the federal account because it has to be driven by small dollar donations. Additionally, almost all state party operations (staff, rent, voter lists, IT, administration costs, etc) have to be paid for out of the federal account because finance regulation assumes that those things are used at least in part to promote federal candidates and influence federal elections. (an oversimplification, but it is the practical effect). Thus, raising money for the federal account has become more expensive and difficult, the costs required to be paid by the federal account have become even more burdensome, and compliance efforts are more complicated and expensive (driving up costs for legal and consulting budgets). The net effect has been to dramatically reduce the involvement and influence of state parties in federal elections around the country.

Second, McCain-Feingold created some new elements in the campaign financing game. People are familiar with 527s (as in, but the newest entities to gain traction are the Super PACs and C4s. Super PACs are candidate-oriented. C4s are the real competition to state parties now. A 501c4 organization can accept donations of unlimited size from both individuals and corporations, and it does not have to disclose those donors in its reports. It is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction to campaign transparency. C4s cannot tell people to vote for or against a particular candidate, but they can drive people to (or away from) specific candidates with ads urging people to "Call Candidate So and So and tell him to support free markets!" or "Call Senator X and tell them you don't want to compromise on environmental protection!" C4s can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money at a very low cost without reporting donors, and they typically have very little overhead to support because they do not work directly with candidates, nor do they have to support and sustain a grassroots activist network. If I'm a major donor with $100,000 to give, and I have a choice between giving to a state party where I have to give my own personal money, my name gets publicly reported, and a big chunk goes to overhead, or I can give to a 501c4 where I can give my own or my business' money, my name (or my company's name) is never released, and almost all of my money goes directly to advertising for the candidate or issue I like, where do you think I will spend my money?

Everything about McCain-Feingold tends to favor large donors and hamper activist organizations like state parties that speak for "the little people".

But it gets better.

The 2000 election crystallized a new campaign strategy adopted very quickly by Democrats: the art of influencing elections through the legal process. The mess that was Florida inspired an entirely new set of tactics that Democrats have used to tremendous effect around the country: filing complaints and litigation for everything they possibly can wherever it is to their advantage to slow down the opposition. Filing a campaign violation complaint against a Republican candidate or entity has proven devastatingly effective around the country because: 1) the media will hype it to the nth degree; 2) conservatives are naturally guilt-ridden and will consider a fellow conservative guilty until proven innocent (and even then there will be residual judgment); 3) conservative donors DO NOT want to contribute money to pay for lawyers. It doesn't matter if the complaint is without merit. It doesn't matter if Democrats have done it, too. It doesn't matter what the ultimate outcome or consequences will be. A campaign violation complaint is the hand grenade of the new politics: it can be thrown at will for any or no reasom, land anywhere, will have a very messy, negative effect for everyone within the vicinity, and it is time-consuming and expensive to clean up. Nobody wants to give money to an organization mired in legal battles: where there's smoke, there's fire, right? There must be something wrong with the organization somewhere, and my donation is just going to go to pay lawyers anyway. Besides, why do I want my name associated with that kind of controversy?

The final nail in the coffin is the protracted recession. People are hurting financially. Since they don't have the cushion of a refund to pay them back for their donation (even if they think it's horrible policy), they're going to be much more careful with their donation budget. Given the choice to give to their local candidate/party unit or give to a state organization mired in legal battles and squabbling among its officers, where do you think the money is going to go? And without sufficient resources at the state level to support the infrastructure that the local units rely on, how long will the units be effective?

To see the results of this convergence of circumstances, we only need look at the Minnesota DFL state party. Their party endorsement has no power; their delegates essentially have no voice. The DFL candidate is the one with the most money to win a primary, and then the resulting winner enacts policies and legislation that appease their biggest contributors. The unions have become the grassroots force when it's needed. All the money, all the strategy, all the top-line staff come from A Better Minnesota and its cohorts. And it comes from all over the country. New York, Hollywood, Colorado, Texas. The old adage that all politics is local has evaporated. It’s been replaced by McPolitics: local franchises of a well-developed, proven campaign concept with national financing.

So it becomes harder and more expensive for state parties to raise money. Legal battles - and bills - mount. Operational expenses have to be cut to appease those complaining about debt. Efforts are made to drive wedges into leadership either by outside attack or by co-opting individual members to the other side (big lobbying contracts on issues against the party platform, for example). Credible leaders walk away from the dysfunction, leaving a power vacuum. Donors wash their hands and direct their money to more effective organizations. The organization splits apart from the inside, crumbles and leaves the path open for victory by the opposition. And it takes years to rebuild, if ever.

This is eerily similar the game plan used by corporations launching a hostile takeover. It has proven very effective wherever it has been deployed. Welcome to the new era of McPolitics.

State parties don’t have to fall prey to this, however. Just like small businesses can retool and compete against national chains, state parties can compete against McPolitics.

Narrow focus to concentrate on what the state party does best. For years, activists and candidates have gotten used to the state party doing “everything” from list development to candidate recruitment to voter turnout to TV advertising. That won’t work in the McPolitics world. State parties have to concentrate on doing a very few things that no other group does, and then do them extraordinarily well.

Know your customer, serve your customer. In the “all things to all people” model, state parties work to appeal to both grassroots activists and the public. That’s a difficult balance to maintain. State parties may find an advantage in picking one group and gearing everything to serve that group. The real voice of the Republican Party is the grassroots activist – regular people who talk with their neighbors every day. No list will ever be complete without input from local volunteers, no advertising strategy can trump good relationships and conversations with your neighbors and friends. There are all kinds of tools and trainings that state parties can generate to equip local activists with what they need to accomplish the goal: successfully getting out the conservative message and turning out voters.

Expect accountability. Understand that successfully competing in the McPolitics world is a two way street, and every person has to do their part. It cannot fall to one person to raise all the money, be the spokesperson, run the daily operations, advise the candidates and keep the calendar. State parties can reasonably expect that every state level officer will help raise money and build local organizations. Every regional and local party officer should have a voter ID plan, a fundraising plan and a voter turnout plan, and it is reasonable to expect that if one plans to run for local party officer positions, one will have the integrity to fulfill all the responsibilities that come with the position. Candidates for office – every office – have to do their part to add to the effectiveness of the whole effort with strong, well-organized, self-sustaining campaigns. In this incredibly competitive new landscape, every single person matters. Slacking off is not allowed. Infighting is destructive. The only way this strategy works is when everyone stands shoulder to shoulder and does the work together. The bottom line is: if you want to be counted, then your efforts have to count for something.

I have been involved in Minnesota politics for longer than I care to admit. I’ve seen the parties here go through several cycles of renewal. The timing in this case for the Republican Party of Minnesota to retool and open the New Year focused and ready is perfect for the coming 2012 elections. There’s not a moment to waste.

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