Donor misgivings: Money on right only preserved status quo
Donors to Campaign 2012 should at least receive a free T-shirt that reads “I spent a billion dollars and all I got was the status quo.” That is exactly the result of 2012, despite all the talk of mandates, wins and coat tails. The Democrats still control the White House and Senate. The Republicans still control the House of Representatives.
More impressively, at the local and state level, Republicans and Democrats both continued to increase gains in states already tilted in their direction. Republicans control a majority of governor’s mansions and the number of states with bipartisan state division is the lowest it has been in more than a generation. Most states are either controlled wholly by the Democrats or wholly by the Republicans.
In truth, however, donor money on the right had little impact beyond preserving the status quo. There are some lessons that can be learned and that donors can get right going forward into 2014.
Many major donors had a “go it alone” approach in 2012. They started their own groups, including Super PACs. They relied on existing Republican consultants who set up elaborate organizations using donor money. The consultants spent money on mail and advertising, which surprisingly is what they make money off of as consultants. The commission kickback is a siren call for consultants who may get five percent to ten percent in commission fees for the mail and advertising.
Other donors decided to create large groups with an army of activists. In the process, donor dollars competed against donor dollars with the motivation becoming growth of groups, not winning an election.
Smart donors contributed to existing infrastructure instead of creating their own. They made sure their money was spent on grassroots activism. One of the model donors in 2012 was Joe Ricketts. While he did start Ending Spending, he also relied on existing groups like American Majority to do ground game operations. It is not sexy and does not make consultants money, but it works.
Often times the small organizations are the most effective. They have lower overhead, are more entrepreneurial, and are not worried about building massive email lists. Several of the large conservative groups went into Wisconsin during the various recalls. They had brilliant numbers for how many mail pieces went out, how much advertising was purchased, how many doors were knocked on, and how many phones were called. But on Facebook, the volunteers were posting pictures of their tours of breweries, their pre-election pub crawls, and not exactly doing what they claimed.
Meanwhile, small organizations like American Majority, American Majority Action, Heritage Action for America, the Madison Project, and others were returning to doors unanswered and phones unanswered, making sure they were not just knocking on doors and calling phones, but actually repeating the process until they got through to people. That level of activism matters. Willing to put in the grunt work matters. Donors who want to have an impact need to invest in groups that are willing to do the grunt work and keep doing the grunt work. Unfortunately, these are often the groups not out spending millions of dollars promoting their efforts.
One of the most effective grassroots organizations dependent on smart donors is Club for Growth. It is so effective that, of late, the Republican Party has taken to speaking ill of it as it continues to effectively primary Republicans. The Club has a singular focus on small government, fiscal conservatives. With a limited criteria for engagement, a pollster who assesses the viability of races, and a sharp vetting process, the Club for Growth spends its donor money very wisely.
Any donor who wants to get into the game in a big way needs to set specific criteria. Is the donor going to focus on social issues or fiscal issues? Just backing the GOP without a core mission is foolhardy. Voters want to vote for candidates who stand for something. The donors should fund organizations and candidates who stand for something other than the letter next to their name.
Some of the most misspent money in 2102 was on technology. Many of the donors who give are technologically clueless. Many of the consultants seeking the money understand the value of data. Donors funded data collection efforts by consultants the consultants can use going forward. Often the donors were clueless about what was happening.
There is data and then there is useful data. Focusing on social networks, getting people to comment on websites, engaging Facebook and Twitter, should be ancillary in developing useful data. Useful data is very simple—who votes, how often do those people vote, what motivates them to vote, and real time monitoring of whether the people have voted.
The Obama campaign has spent years developing the data, running screens of the data to assess the voter pool, finding ways to target voters for persuasion, and—most critically—using all that data to then get people to vote, monitor their voting, and checking them off the list. It is not extremely hard, but it takes time.
Donors must be willing to make technologically precise investments in tools like Political Gravity, which seeks to duplicate several of the Democrats’ successful data collection and data mobilization efforts. Just finding the voters is no longer enough. Finding ways to motivate voters to get out and vote then to make sure they actually have voted is now key.
Finally, donors must be patient. The Obama campaign spent half a decade putting together its approach. Instead of investing in consultants who worked for other clients too, the Obama campaign put the people on the payroll. They were solely focused on getting Barack Obama re-elected, not on outside clients. They had a specific purpose, made technologically precise investments, and were patient. If Republican donors want to stop misgiving, they will need to do the same.
The ultimate purpose must be about winning the election, not taking the credit.
Erick Erickson is the editor of RedState.Com and a frequent commentator on CNN. RedState.Com is owned by Eagle Publishing.