Would you—yes, you—run for office?

I have recently been asking friends and acquaintances that question. Of the few who say, “Yes,” most have one hesitation: fundraising. They’re right to have qualms.

The foundational trait you need to advance in US politics is not stirring oratory, telegenic charisma, policy expertise, or a grand vision. Instead, you need access to cash. Unless you have Bloomberg-like personal wealth, you have to be good at asking for money, mostly on the phone.

You have to not mind doing it, because you have to do a lot of it. It’s your main job, as a politician, and not just during your campaigns. If you’re a candidate for local office, you may get away with just an hour or two a day of fundraising calls. One candidate for state representative who faces only light opposition told me recently that she “only” has to put in six hours of call time a week. But the higher the office, the more fundraising.  The Democratic Caucus in the US House of Representatives recommends that members spend four hours a day on fundraising calls, twice as long as it recommends spending in committee meetings and on the floor of the house combined.

Call Time

One prominent Northwest politician told me that the grim reality of seeking office nowadays is, mostly, sitting in a room talking into a telephone headset. Beside you is a campaign aide toting a clipboard and a stop watch, recording every pledge, monitoring how long it’s taking to win each one, and queuing up the calls. You dial and ask, dial and ask, dial and ask.

Your competitors are dialing for dollars, too, and they’re trying to outraise you. This money race is the key to selling yourself to voters, because advertising is much of campaigning now, and advertising is expensive. The money race is also how the news media handicap the contest. Your fundraising haul and your polling numbers are the main story the media will report. Media handicapping, in turn, dictates how easy it is for you to raise money. Everyone wants to curry favor with presumptive winners; no one gives to losers. So the more calls you make, the more successful they become.

As a result, the pressure is constantly on: you have to start raising money early and keep raising it at a furious pace. If you’re an incumbent, an overflowing war chest is your best hope of deterring challengers. It’s how you minimize the risk that an ideological super-PAC will unleash a million-dollar attack on you.

A successful politician with a long career has likely been devoting hours a day to fundraising for decades. Washington Senator Patty Murray has raised a lifetime total of $45 million for her own campaigns, typically in increments of $5,200 or less. (Under current US campaign rule, even after Citizens United, a donor’s contributions directly to a candidate are capped, although donors may circumvent the cap in various ways.) She’s raised tens of millions more for other campaigns, either directly or through the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which she chaired during one of its most lucrative periods.

No other Cascadian leader has yet matched Senator Murray, but she’s been at it longer. Plenty of others have pulled in eight figures. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s career haul is $25 million. Governor Jay Inslee’s is $24 million, Governor John Kitzhaber’s $13 million, and Congressman Dave Reichert’s $12 million.

Moonlighting Telemarketers

I’m not dinging these particular public officials. They’re playing the game according to the rules, and they’re good at it. That these officials have accomplished laudable things is all the more to their credit. My case is not against the players on the field; it’s against the game itself. The current rules of American politics are a screen through which only exceptionally gifted telemarketers can pass: telemarketers who are willing to moonlight running the government.

This fact—that high-ranking figures in the governments that control the fate of the Northwest spend the plurality of their time fundraising—is damning in itself. Leaders are supposed to be at the helm, not in the call center.

Worse is the systemic corruption the money race introduces into democracy. If you’re a candidate, you call the people who can make big gifts. You don’t linger on the phone, though you do have to listen to contributors’ concerns. This means you’re spending hours every day, month after month, year after year, listening to the views of rich people. You develop a sixth sense for how this class will respond to different legislative proposals. They are the people you interact with most often.

Inevitably, this process warps your perspective. Or perhaps more than that, the process itself elevates politicians who are attuned to the rich. Law professor Lawrence Lessig calls this the “donor election.” First, donors decide who is acceptable, then voters pick from among them, their choices shaded—but not dictated—by who has the money to dominate the airwaves.

Rule by the Donor Class

The consequence, as I detailed in “The G-word,” is that only the political preferences of the donor class influence elected representatives’ actions. Poor people’s political views are irrelevant. Actually, they’re worse than irrelevant. They’re inversely correlated with what their putative representatives do. Elected officials are more likely to push proposals that their poor constituents dislike than proposals they like.

Research released in April on the same subject examined an enormous sample of cases. The authors looked at a whopping 1,779 different issues and confirmed that the US is more an oligarchy than a democracy:

[E]conomic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence…When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appears to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

Translated from the academic, what that means is that politics has devolved into a disagreement among rich people. The fundraising process itself—the way you win office—keeps it that way.

Move the Food

In opinion surveys, Americans overwhelmingly support tight legal limits on campaign spending, time limits on campaigning, and all manner of other constraints. Reformers have imposed—in those rare moments when they had the power to do so—many of those limits, but the US Supreme Court has whittled away at them, because its conservative majority takes an extremely narrow view of what corruption looks like. What’s left is a tattered mélange of half-measures that attempt to control political money without crossing the lines the Court has drawn. This remnant system is vulnerable to the leakiness of all partial constraints on political money, as I’ve argued.

There’s a smarter strategy. Rather than trying to herd the cats away from the food supply, we can put out a bigger, more-accessible food supply elsewhere and let the cats’ self-interest draw them to the new troves of kibbles. We can create a system of public funding for campaigns that ends systemic corruption by turning all voters into potential donors of equal significance. We can, in short, distribute packets of candidate kibbles to every voter.

Under the system nearly approved by voters last year in Seattle, for example, public funds would have matched, six to one, up to $50 of private contributions from city residents. To receive the matching funds, candidates would have had to agree to limit their total spending and only accept contributions that fell within the rules of the city program: small gifts from city residents. (The Seattle City Council will soon consider whether to put a similar measure before voters again in 2014.)

What clean elections do—and don’t

Seattle’s proposal was built in the image of New York City’s small-donor matching-fund elections. New York’s system is among the best designed in operation. With the help of two colleagues, Professor Michael J. Malbin of the University at Albany, State University of New York, put the Big Apple’s system under the microscope.

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  • The main effect of matching-grant fundraising is on candidates’ behavior: politicians spend dramatically less time fundraising and instead spend it discussing community issues with voters. In New York City, candidates participating in the system have 50 percent more donors than do nonparticipants. They raise money from more parts of the city, not just from the affluent quarters.

    Public funding for political races is no cure-all. Kenneth Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a leading scholar of state and local campaign financing in the United States concludes that public funding only modestly boosts the number of competitive races. Citizen-funded elections yield more contested races, more candidates, and a 2 percentage point reduction in the advantage incumbents normally have in reelection races. On the other hand, in the few states with public funding, it’s had no measurable effect on gender balance or racial or ethnic diversity of the candidate pool.

    Professor Mayer writes, “Most of the civic benefits of public funding have, we can safely say, been oversold, with no discernible effect on turnout, perceptions of efficacy, or confidence in the political process.” (See video of Professor Mayer summarizing the academic literature last year in Seattle here and testifying before the Seattle City Council here.) Mayer agrees with Malbin and his colleagues, however, that public funding has one big impact. It rewrites the relationship between candidates and constituents. It turns most voters into potentially big donors. It moves the food.

    Would you, now?

    Imagine a Northwest where campaigning for office no longer means spending hours a day phoning rich people and asking for big checks. Imagine instead that every voter in your district can put $350 in your campaign coffer for just a $50 donation. Only a tiny share of donors can afford to make the maximum permissible contributions ($700 per person per election per candidate in Seattle races, for example, in 2013) but many, even most, can afford to max out at $50.

    In this imagined world, the reasonable strategy is to slash your call time and get out on the hustings as much as possible.  You will want to find any audience of five or more people where you can make your pitch and then pass the hat. You’ll need to be an inspiring grassroots leader who can motivate a base of supporters to spread excitement among their friends.

    Your campaign may involve daily coffee parties in constituents’ homes, each with 20 or 30 guests. You may spend time on the phone, drumming up more coffee parties, but you’ll be looking not for people with big checkbooks but people with many friends.

    If you’re good on the stump, you may even be able to motivate contributions when you get time on the radio, participate in a debate, or speak at a community forum, block party, or neighborhood festival.

    You’ll be raising money from, and spending all your time with, the exact same people whose votes you need: ordinary people from all walks of life. Staying in the good graces of the rich will no longer be a prerequisite to political success. Consequently, the systemic corruption of the current system will fade away.

    So, if campaigning for office were like that, would you run?