Rules of the Game: Texts Could Draw Small Donations

Posted June 15, 2012 at 5:17pm

In an election increasingly defined by big money, the Federal Election Commission’s recent move to permit campaign contributions via text message strikes many as the perfect antidote.

“I really do think this is a potential game changer for the campaign finance system,” said Brett Kappel, an election lawyer with Arent Fox, who represented a pair of consulting firms that asked the FEC to clear donations via text. “I think it can bring the individual small donor back into the system, and they can play a significant role.”

Proponents of fundraising via mobile text point to a long list of benefits. Texting can tap vast numbers of small donors and raise large sums in a short amount of time, note a diverse array of political players who petitioned the FEC to approve the practice. They point to the tens of millions of dollars raised via mobile device in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. About 4.3 million Americans donated
$43 million to Haiti earthquake relief via text message, according to a January report by the Pew Internet Project.

Amid campaign finance controversies marked by sharp partisan divisions, the mobile donations plan enjoys rare bipartisan support. Those urging the FEC to approve it included the campaigns of President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“The American public has embraced texting as an important form of communication and commerce, and it is time for federal regulations to catch up,” Romney officials wrote in comments to the FEC.

But texting enthusiasts had better wait before opening the Champagne. It would take an awful lot of small contributions to offset the six- to eight-figure donations underwriting the 2012 election. That’s especially true since election laws limit anonymous contributions to $50 per month, the cap that will be placed on texted contributions.

Contrast that with the multimillion-dollar donations flowing into super PACs and politically active nonprofits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling to deregulate political spending. The news that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife will now donate $10 million to Romney’s campaign underscores the already-disproportionate influence of wealthy donors on federal elections.

Even before the Citizens United ruling, less than one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans accounted for the vast bulk of all political contributions totaling $200 or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The super PAC era has moved the business of raising political money into an even more elite sphere, dominated by a short list of billionaires and CEOs. Most of the $221 million raised by super PACs in this election comes from a few dozen donors giving $500,000 or more, according to the CRP.

“Look, this isn’t going to solve everything, and it’s not going to blunt the forces of super PACs and billionaires in the political process,” acknowledged Aaron Scherb, legislative program manager at Public Campaign, one of 10 government watchdog groups that joined in petitioning the FEC to approve the text messaging proposal.

Still, Scherb added, “We think this will amplify the voices of everyday Americans.”

Reform advocates have long sought to boost the participation of small donors through a variety of means, including matching funds, new technologies, tax credits and campaign contribution limits.

At one time, Republicans dominated the small-donor world, thanks to their aggressive use of direct-mail fundraising. In 2008, Obama turned the tables by collecting a record number of small contributions via social networking and other high-tech tools. In this election, Obama has already used texting as a means to tap existing donors in his campaign’s database.

Both Obama and Romney have toiled to boost their small-donor fundraising totals, in part because low-dollar contributions are a well-recognized gateway for mobilizing volunteers, repeat donors and voters. Noted Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University: “Small-money donors can often be tweaked to be active in lots of other ways.”

For most candidates, Wilcox predicted, small donations raised via text message or other means will not replace large donations to unregulated groups but will simply supplement them.

Even so, the advent of mobile text donations has potentially dramatic ramifications. Text instructions are sure to become a campaign ad staple. Candidates may now call out to crowds at events and rallies to donate via text, Kappel noted. A candidate swamped by a last-minute super PAC expenditure could ask supporters to text small contributions as a way to fight back, he added.

“This is one of those [rulings] that could actually have a substantial impact on how campaigns are run,” Kappel said.

Obama’s success with small donors continues to illustrate their power, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. He noted that the president continues to outstrip Romney on that front. At Obama’s fundraiser last month with movie star George Clooney, the president raised $9 million from low-dollar contributors angling to attend — more than the $6 million forked over by the dinner’s actual guests.

“There’s no question that the money is out there to counter the contributions of the eight-figure donors of this world,” Malbin said. “Many, many people would give if they were asked.”