Election 2020 Politics

Fundraising appeals are a plague on our politics. Here’s why you should care.

But even in this business, one facet stands out in its dishonesty: Fundraising. And increasingly, it might behoove us to have a true reckoning with that.

In recent days, a spotlight has been cast upon one tactic that is highly deceptive even by modern standards: effectively tricking people into making recurring donations.

The New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher wrote a must-read piece this weekend. It revealed that the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee in 2020 repeatedly ratcheted up an effort to insert confusing pre-checked boxes into appeals, leading donors to make recurring donations. Many donors understandably missed this. The result: More than 10 percent of the money raised via WinRed, which processed online donations for the Trump effort, were refunded.

“In effect, the money that Mr. Trump eventually had to refund amounted to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race,” Goldmacher writes aptly.

Democratic groups have also used pre-checked recurring-donation boxes, but the pro-Trump effort made them gradually more complex and easier to skip over, leading to a surge in refunds and claims of wrongdoing that went far beyond refunds by Democratic groups.

ActBlue, the chief online donation company for Democrats, has said it has been phasing out the practice “unless groups were explicitly asking for recurring contributions.”

Some Republican groups, though, are apparently doubling down. Just a few days after the initial story broke, reporters noticed that a highly confusing recurring-donations box remained pre-checked on solicitations for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm — even as the RNC simplified its language to make the recurring-donations request clearer.

“If you UNCHECK this box, we will have to tell Trump you’re a DEFECTOR & sided with the Dems,” the NRCC solicitation read. It added: “Check this box and we can win back the House and get Trump to run in 2024.”

Another solicitation reported by the Bulwark said, “Check this box if you want Trump to run again. Uncheck this box if you do NOT stand with Trump.”

In other words, people who were already donating to the GOP were faced with a choice: Even while donating, they had to reject the idea that they wanted Trump to run again or that they wanted to win back the House — if they even read the disclaimer in the first place. Perhaps more significant yet, they were told Trump himself would be informed of their apostasy — for donating to Republicans but also somehow being a “DEFECTOR” who “sided with the Dems.”

Of course, Trump would never actually be told of these things. Nor would declining the option turn the donors into some kind of member of the Resistance. These are categorically false threats used to extract more money from unsuspecting people.

While the deception might be more direct in these appeals, they build upon plenty that came before them. Fundraising appeals have become a wasteland of laughable claims and empty threats that donors might not realize are so bogus or empty. A recent Princeton University study found that 99 percent of political fundraising emails use manipulative tactics.

Among the most abusive:

  • Solicitations will tell prospective donors that a relatively small dollar amount in one race will somehow make a huge difference in the fate of the country.
  • They will regularly tell people that they are this close to meeting their monthly or quarterly goal and that their donation could put the effort over the top, despite never having declared that goal in the first place or delving into the actual numbers.
  • Candidates will spend huge amounts on fundraising — sometimes as much as a majority of dollars spent by the campaigns — in the name of inflating their totals. This creates the illusion of formidability and deprives donors of actually funding a real campaign.
  • They will promise donors that their contribution will be matched — sometimes several times over — by others whose identities are undeclared, and who one wonders why they don’t just give the money regardless.
  • They will send appeals for supposedly renewed support to people who have never given but somehow wound up on their lists. (I have received many such appeals, despite never giving to any political campaign.)
  • They pitch the emails in exceedingly personal and dire terms while sending them to large swaths of people on their lists. The emails will often include subject lines that suggest some kind of conversation in which the recipients have never engaged.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has become particularly notorious on some of these fronts, leading some liberals in recent years to criticize the efforts as deceptive. But those tactics have increasingly caught on with others waging an increasingly ratcheted-up arms war for political cash. And indeed, in defending its confusing recurring-donations check boxes, Republicans have claimed it was actually Democrats who started this (while not really addressing how much further they have gone).

It’s the kind of steady drip, drip, drip that will continue until donors and our political system start actually caring that they are being deceived.

The question for American politics right now is indeed how much we’re willing to tolerate this. Donors are among the most passionate supporters of one side or the other, meaning their threshold for alienation is significantly higher. If you feel strongly enough about your party’s candidates that you’ll give hundreds or thousands of dollars, are you really going to complain about your party misleading you into donating? Even many of the Trump supporters who felt bilked by his campaign’s fundraising strategy stressed to Goldmacher that they didn’t hold the former president accountable.

One telling account in the piece involved a man who called the tactics “predatory!” but said he didn’t blame Trump personally. “I’m 100 percent loyal to Donald Trump.” But these things were done in Trump’s name and by his campaign.

As with many things in politics, it’s up to supporters to demand more honesty from those asking for their support. Until that comes, the incentive is clearly on the other side. That envelope is clearly being pushed and has been for a number of years.

But perhaps people should demand more, even from entities which they support and even in a venue in which they might expect to be manipulated. It wouldn’t eliminate dishonesty in politics, but it would sure be a start.

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