U.S. Elected Officials Are Telemarketers

With Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez flummoxing the professional Democratic class with her apparent media savvy, it’s worth reminding people that media savvy or, for that matter, policy expertise are not the primary qualifications for higher elected office. As some asshole with a blog noted many moons ago (boldface added):

…the problem is related to the absence of meaningful campaign finance reform, such as publicly funded campaigns. The primary qualification of the modern politician is the ability to raise money. That is simply the ability to cold-call rich people and ask them for donations. The ability to chat them up at a private fundraiser helps too. Unfortunately, these ‘skills’ are off-putting to many, otherwise qualified political hopefulls. They are also completely unrelated to the skills needed for governing. (Given that introspection and private reflection probably help with governing, fundraising skills might even be a hinderance to governing).

Interestingly, Ocasio-Cortez herself seems to understand this. To give you an idea of how pervasive and time consuming is, let’s look at former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill’s fundraising. In her last election cycle (2013 – 2018), McCaskill raised $21,168,283 from large donations (greater than $200; below $200, the identity of the reporter doesn’t have to be reported). If we drill down into 2017-18, she had 3,889 contributions equal to or greater than $500 that did not arrive via ActBlue, the online Democratic-aligned campaign donation site. If we include ActBlue donations, that number increases to 14,493.

Now, it’s utterly unclear how many of these large donations were due to phone calls. Will some call recipients donate via ActBlue? Sure. And some donations over $500 are ‘walk ins’–no call necessary. Other donations might arrive after fundraisers such as dinners. But let’s say she had 3,000 successful ‘hits’ over two years, or 1,500 per year. If there are realistically 200 days per year for doing this, that’s 7.5 successful calls per day (and if I’m underestimating the amount donated by call contacts, then it would be higher).

What this means elected official is sitting in a cubicle dialing for dollars: the DCCC and DSCC have offices near the Capitol for this, as it is illegal for them to do this in their government offices, so it really is like a telemarketing farm (the GOP does too). While this might not be true cold calls (this is one reason why you might read articles about fights over various campaign databases–a high hit rate list is worth its weight in gold), these calls aren’t typically to people they know. And they have to spend hours nearly every day doing this: you can’t just call someone out of the blue and say, “I’m Senator McCaskill. Give me your money. Goodbye.” Of course, some seemingly successful calls won’t be, as the recipient forgot (or lied just to get the senator off the line). It goes without saying that a janitor earning minimum wage isn’t on the call list either. To say that this fundraising process biases policy would be an understatement–it’s a hard sell to get money from a well-off person if one proposed to significantly raise their taxes.

So if you’re wondering why so many Democratic officials can’t do what appears to be obvious in terms of politics and policy, one reason (among several) is that they are not selected for that. Perhaps more accurately, there is a telemarketing filter that weeds out officials who are bad at this. That’s why H.R. 1, the campaign finance reform bill proposed by Democrats, which, among other reforms, would provide matching funds to candidates, is so important: small donations, along with a few large ones become amplified and can finance a campaign.

This is a longstanding problem.

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