Archive for August, 2012

New Apps Explain Super PAC Spending

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As they do every four years, presidential candidates are beginning to appear much more frequently during our favorite TV shows’ commercial breaks.

With the November election mere months away, the likes of adorable Subaru commercials and creative Google spots have been overrun by political attack ads funded by Super PAC groups such as American Crossroads or Priorities USA.  While it’s no secret that prime-time advertising space on network channels is extraordinarily expensive, average Americans do not know very much about the groups who sign the checks to put these attack ads on the air.

In an effort to make Super PAC information more transparent and inform the general public, Sunlight Foundation – an educational organization committed to increasing transparency in US government – and Glassy Media – a new business founded by two grad students from Harvard and MIT – recently released mobile applications called Ad Hawk and Super PAC Apps, respectively.  Using the same audio recognition technology as apps such as Shazam, these apps can listen to a political advertisement and – within seconds – give users a comprehensive bio of the group that paid for it.  Both Ad Hawk and Super PAC App include a detailed summary of the group’s mission statement and business plan, how much money the group has raised and spent to date, and how much cash on hand the group has in the bank.  They also show how much money the PAC is spending on negative ads versus positive ads and which political candidate the group supports or opposes.

Political attack ads – from both sides of the aisle – have often had a tendency to border on the line of truth.  Few would go so far as to say the ads are littered with flat-out lies, but many would agree it’d be fair to say they typically look at large issues through a very tiny window.  And in today’s Digital Age, with information spreading so rapidly on so many different channels, it’s very difficult for average voters to find the truth.  Super PAC Apps has a solution to that problem.  After listening to an ad, the application gives viewers a list of information, statistics, or claims the advertisement made with links to reputable sources that either back up or disprove the content in the commercial.  This – in my opinion – will be the most important and most helpful feature of the new app.

Obviously, these new apps won’t stop the contributions from flowing into the PACs, and they certainly won’t stop the attack ads from going on the air.  They could, however, provide average voters with information they may not have obtained otherwise, and an informed general public is never a bad thing.  So far this election year, over $300 million have been contributed to various Super PACs across the country. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, these multimillion dollar contributions remain anonymous, prompting the media to coin the phrase “dark money.”  This isn’t to say Super PACs are “bad,” but the regulations at which they are permitted to operate have loopholes that have been found and exploited at the expense of the average voter.  Since the FEC has continued to show their unwillingness to update their disclosure regulations, technological innovation has stepped in to fill in the cracks.

These two apps, if they’re used by enough people, will accomplish their goals of increasing transparency between the government and the American people.

The donors may still be anonymous, the money still dark, and the ads still factually shaky.  But now, armed with our iPhones, at least we’ll know a little more about the groups who paid for them.

 

 

 

Obama for America goes mobile

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Even in election years marked by multimillion dollar donations to a new brand of political action committees–better known as Super PACs – President Obama continuously shows that he understands the value of small-money donors. The Obama campaign took grassroots fundraising to a historical level in 2008, raising 45% of their overall funds in small contributions. Now, four years later, grassroots fundraising has been given a new weapon. They’re going mobile.

Three months after the FEC unanimously approved a rule allowing text message contributions, Obama’s team is days away from wrapping up agreements with Verizon, Spring and T-Mobile to begin fundraising via text by the end of this week.

How will it work?

Text to donate campaigns have typically been used in large-scale charity movements. They made their first big splash during the aftermath of the earthquake that tragically devastated Haiti. In just two weeks, Americans contributed $30 million through text message donations.

In order to comply with FEC regulations and protect the interests of the mobile carriers, the approval of text message contributions came with strict rules and conditions.

  • Donations will be capped at $10 per text, $50 per month, and $200 per cycle.
  • The FEC has stated that campaigns are “solely responsible” for ensuring their donations comply with all FEC laws, including laws that prohibit donations from corporations and minors.
  • Wireless service providers may decide to accept donations for certain political committees and not others.
  • Contributions will be assessed a fee. Carriers and other payment processors will likely receive between 30 and 50 percent of the total contribution.

This is how text message fundraising will work. 1) Campaigns will distribute a phone number to a mobile payment processor for their supporters to text in order to donate. 2) Donors text that number, attest that they are legally permitted to contribute, and pledge their contributions. 3) The mobile payment processor and wireless carrier take their respective fees from the contributions. 4) The rest is given to the campaign by the wireless carrier. 5) The donation is added to the donor’s bill at the end of the month. 6) The donor pays the wireless carrier.

How large of an impact will it have?

Donors already have the incredibly easy-to-use option of contributing with credit cards online, so why is text messaging going to matter so much?

Well, simply put, because it’s easier. Almost 80 percent of Americans send or receive at least one text per day. Young college students – a group the Obama campaign has connected with on an unprecedented level – never leave home without a phone in their pockets. To many people, texting a five-digit number doesn’t feel like spending money, so the hope is that they’ll just hit send and not think twice about it.

Imagine being one of the tens of thousands of people who will be at the Democratic National Convention when President Obama accepts his presidential nomination. You’re in the moment, listening to the President of the United States of America deliver an inspired speech to his supporters. Cameras are flashing, flags are waving, and iPhones are recording. People are standing, clapping, screaming, and whistling as Obama thanks his crowd, promises change, and says God Bless America. He exits the stage, and as he’s walking off, a JumboTron flashes a message: Text GIVE to 62262.

Still caught in the moment, close to 70,000 people – the estimated attendance in Denver four years ago – around you pull out their phones and press the buttons to donate ten dollars.

It’d be hard not to do the same, and that’s why it’s going to be important.

Super PACs overshadow armies of small donors

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According to FEC data, over 2.5 million people have made political contributions to the presidential campaign of their choice of $200 or less. That sounds like a large number. That is a large number.

It just doesn’t mean as much as it used to.

Four years ago, President Obama’s campaign made history with their innovative techniques of encouraging small-dollar donors’ involvement. 45 percent of his funds came from individuals who contributed $200 or less. In this election year so far, that percentage has drastically shrunk.

Through June, the 2.5 million people who have made small donations to either presidential campaign represent only 18 percent of the two parties’ total funds. According to Politico, during this election, the top .07 percent of donors is more valuable than the bottom 86 percent. In an election where virtually all we hear from either candidate is the necessity to strengthen our middle class, the fundraising statistics are awfully top-heavy.

Of course, like most things, there are varying opinions on the matter. Some voters think money is money. If both sides are using these Super PACs, there is still a level playing field. Campaign finance directors have no choice but to fall on this side of the argument. In the last election, Obama urged wealthy Democrats not to spend money on third party groups supporting his campaign. Four years later, that message has been forced to change.

But a large amount of voters disagree. They don’t think it’s fair that the fundraising for a general election is being virtually dominated by the super wealthy.

It’s very possible that President Obama won four years ago because he convinced the small-dollar donors – the Average Joe’s, the middle class, the “regular” people – that he would represent their best interest. He developed a relationship with the people, and they showed their appreciation by contributing financially. Yes, the checks were small – five, ten, fifty dollars – but giving money seemed to provide his supporters with an invaluable sense of involvement with the campaign. That connection between candidates and voters may suffer if Super PACs continue financially overshadowing armies of small donors.

The small donor revolution that President Obama’s campaign pioneered four years ago seems to be coming to a sudden halt. Was this inevitable? Will it impact the upcoming election?

Those questions could be answered in the next few months.