Can Crowdfunding Fix What Ails American Democracy?

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As presidential candidates continue duking it out debate after debate, some of their observers are quietly waging a behind-the-scenes battle over who, exactly, should be funding their campaigns to begin with. Meet the Progressive Democrats of America, a grassroots political action committee that raises money to influence elections, as…

As presidential candidates continue duking it out debate after debate, some of their observers are quietly waging a behind-the-scenes battle over who, exactly, should be funding their campaigns to begin with. Meet the Progressive Democrats of America, a grassroots political action committee that raises money to influence elections, as well as Crowdpac, a new political crowdfunding organization. Together, they’re teaming up to develop a new campaign-finance initiative that went live on Sunday and is aimed at pressuring the Democratic National Committee to reverse a recent decision that rolled back President Obama’s ban on financial contributions from lobbyists — a decision that outraged many in the party’s base.

But will their efforts be enough to impact change in a group as large and influential as the DNC?

Under the plan, voters could make a financial pledge to the DNC, which would get the money only in exchange for banning donations from federal lobbyists. PDA, which has supported the Bernie Sanders campaign, plans to blast tens of thousands of donors and ask them to commit $27 — in honor of the amount regularly cited by the Vermont senator as being the average donation to his campaign. Of course, funds raised may not be hugely significant in the eyes of the DNC, which didn’t comment for this article, but denying a large lump sum from small donors could be interpreted by progressive voters as a sign that the Democratic Party doesn’t take their cause seriously.

I do think it’s obnoxious enough — in a good way — that it would be an opportunity for them to generate interest, even if it doesn’t result in a major financial contribution.

David Karpf, assistant professor at George Washington University

As it turns out, this initiative was inspired by the Republican Party, after groups like the Tea Party proved to be influential in getting candidates elected to Congress outside of the traditional party apparatus, says Crowdpac’s political director, Elizabeth Jaff, a veteran of both of Obama’s presidential campaigns. And using small donors as a financial wedge hasn’t been without precedence in recent years. Back in 2010, when some Democratic senators were reportedly wavering over whether to support the Affordable Care Act, the advocacy group MoveOn emailed its members to see if they’d be willing to support candidates in a primary who’d run against any Democrat who voted against the bill.

While a fresh injection of funds could be used to support the eventual presidential nominee, as well as candidates who may run to wrest control of the Senate back from the Republicans this fall, some think the effort is likely to end up with mixed results. After all, it rests on the hope that donors who are enthusiastic about Sanders’ run will also want to donate to a much more specifically targeted campaign that branches out from his overall opposition to corporate contributions for presidential runs, says David Karpf, an assistant professor at George Washington University who has researched and written extensively about progressive funding networks like MoveOn.

Karpf notes that the key to making an impact with small donations is to have an email list of several million potential donors, not tens of thousands, as PDA has. “But,” he adds, “I do think it’s obnoxious enough — in a good way — that it would be an opportunity for them to generate interest, even if it doesn’t result in a major financial contribution.” For now, PDA plans to give the DNC about a month to respond to its campaign, during which time it hopes to build up additional attention and financial support for the cause, says PDA’s executive director, Donna Smith.

Going forward, Jaff says Crowdpac is planning similar initiatives throughout the presidential campaign season — including directly with some of the candidates on issues related to pledge drives. For example, a hypothetical Crowdpac issue could involve supporters of Donald Trump who would pledge to donate a certain amount of money if the real estate mogul brought up the topic of, say, healthcare during the next Republican debate. The pledges can’t be tied to specific legislation, of course, but when it comes to getting candidates to talk about issues and even incorporate them into their platforms, it’s a much more specific approach to campaign finance that could shape the bases of both parties going forward.


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