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Monday, May 29, 2023
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U.S. Senate candidate and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes speaking during the Democratic Party rally in Milwaukee on Saturday, October 29.

Political hero syndrome: How campaigns take advantage of American voters

“We’re about to break down and cry… we assumed our best supporters (like YOU) would donate. But WE WERE WRONG. We’re at a loss for words.” 

This was the first email in my overly-crowded inbox as I sat down to write this piece. No, don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything. It’s just November of an election year where well-educated and well-paid consultants are telling us that the fate of the American experiment hinges on my $10 — and oh-by-the-way-isn’t-this-convenient, you can donate with just one click right here. 

Inspiration in American politics today is hard to come by. The same country where our leaders once told us “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and it was “morning in America” has now devolved into a race to the bottom — so long as it brings in cash.

Because of my nerd-like interest in campaign tactics, I managed to find my way onto a couple of candidates' email lists — both favorites and knaves. In recent months, this small number has snowballed as staffers traded data and donor files with each other. My nice list of occasional press releases has been consumed by politicians from Alaska to Georgia clamoring for my money as if I’m the second coming of “Dollar Mark” Hanna.

I am no stranger to the world of campaign finance. In 2020, I served as the deputy finance assistant for Missouri State Senator Jill Schupp’s congressional campaign in my backyard — national bell-weather Missouri's Second District. 

Although Schupp lost narrowly (a microcosm of national Democrats' puzzlingly lukewarm down-ballot performance that year), the campaign still managed to turn in an extraordinarily strong fundraising performance — raising $4.7 million, a district record. Helping manage this machine, I learned firsthand there are numerous variables that cause messaging and fundraising strategies to change on a dime. 

Key issues can change overnight, certain endorsements come from seemingly nowhere and public polling can dramatically impact the way national figures perceive your strength. Make no mistake — fear can be a powerful and effective motivator, but it is no one's first tactic. 

When you tell your donors — the base of your base — democracy will collapse if they fail to send you $25, it shows you don’t really believe you have winning issues or an inspiring agenda. And, when you look at it, it’s hard to make the case that either side does this year.

Republicans continue to lie to their supporters that the man who has sat in the Oval Office for the past two years was illegitimately elected, and that they are the last line of defense against a phantom “Marxist agenda” that should be introduced any day now. 

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is mostly staying on the sidelines this autumn, as many high-profile Democrats see his sagging popularity as a liability — jumping at the chance to distance themselves from the White House. When reporters do catch Mr. Biden in the Rose Garden, he touts his accomplishments and declares he put the U.S. back on track. The problem is no one, not even his biggest supporters, really believes that. So while the President is acting like the security guard at the end of “Animal House” (Remain calm! All is well!), the Democrats have embraced the politics of fear as well — sending overly frequent fire and brimstone emails in hopes of salvaging at least the U.S. Senate this fall.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once famously remarked that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But what happens if your prose reads like a middle school English paper and not Hemingway? Like a filmmaker working with an underwhelming script, the Democrats have resorted to cheap gimmicks and jumpscares to keep their audience engaged. But the scariest part of all? The tactics are working.

ActBlue, a software service used by nearly every Democrat and progressive group in America, has revolutionized grassroots fundraising and allowed them to catch — and ultimately surpass — the traditionally big-money Republican party. 

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In fact, it was so effective that they copied the software and introduced WinRed in an attempt to return to some level of parity in 2019. Not only did they utilize the software, but they even borrowed Democrats' trepidatious messaging and their utter disdain for their supporters’ intelligence. 

Currently, Democrats still lead when it comes to fundraising. But does that matter? It depends on who you ask. 

You would obviously rather have more money than your opponent, but Democrats raised huge amounts of money last cycle to only find mixed success. My friends and I have come to laugh at the oversaturated and comically predictable ads we are all used to seeing these days. Every timeout in a football game gives us a chance to see how Mandela Barnes hates cops and supports defunding them, and teaches us how the Tim Michels corporation mistreats women. Everyone I know is sick of seeing these ads and, while that is anecdotal, there is evidence from 2020 that having too much money and running too many ads actually hurts candidates.

The more interesting component for me is why donors are giving unprecedented amounts of money in this day and age — because we’re afraid, and our leaders have told us they are the ones who can make things right. 

Yes, you can dispute the validity of those fears, and I firmly believe Republicans are fighting windmills while Democrats' fears of encroaching fascism are far more real, but in American culture — where individualism is prized above all else — what you think matters. Our sacred American spirit, the one that turned the tide of fascism in Europe and outlasted the Soviet Union, has dissolved into a child on Halloween who looks around at the cobwebs, spiders, and glowing pumpkins and correctly deduces that something is off — something is not right. 

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t tell you who will win the midterms. I have my ideas and hot takes like everyone else, but those are just guesses. What I do know is that this is not sustainable. Our politicians tell us America is in trouble and use fear to illicit donations. Our response this Nov.8 will be to send the vast majority of them — the very people who got us to this point — back to Washington for another term.

Graham Brown is a sophomore staff writer studying Political Science. Do you believe that Americans are forced into threatening rhetoric about the decline of our nation which campaigns exploit for their own good? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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