Even for local politicians, campaign finance goes national

The Internet has already had a profound effect on national campaign finance. Now, it is beginning to impact local politics, too.

When it comes to issues in this midterm election, in case there was any doubt, CBS senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield noted Sunday, “there is a national tide.” That old cliché from Tip O’Neill, “ 'all politics is local,' – if it was ever really true – is finished once and for all,” he said on the "CBS Evening News."

And it’s not just issues that have gone national – so has fundraising, even for the most local of races. Candidates from the Senate down to the city council level are raising money from far beyond their own geographical backyards.

According to The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), candidates taking in money from outside their actual constituency this year is more prevalent than ever. Of course, the Internet has made it easier than ever to put your money where your mouse is. And while the national parties as well as corporate interests are taking full advantage of web strategies, increasingly, individuals are heading online to donate to candidates far outside their own local ballots.

"Ten years ago this was the purview of a very elite level of political giving, from professional donors,” says Paul Kellstedt, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. A decade ago, average people didn’t give money outside their districts, he notes. “This kind of large giving on a national scale tended to happen at big political cocktail parties but today it’s like voting for American Idol,” he says with a laugh. “Anyone can do it.”

New online platforms such as the recently launched Votesane.com have sprung up to speed this kind of cross-boundary engagement. Site co-founder Rob Zimmer says the idea crystallized after leaving a fundraiser himself. “I realized I had listened to all kinds of speeches about giving and I couldn’t actually remember the website as I walked out the door,” he says. It just seemed like a logical next step to provide a one-stop shop for online giving, he adds.

While partisan sites such as moveon.org make it easy to give to one side or the other, Mr. Zimmer points out that his site, which debuted in July, is currently the only non-partisan destination allowing donations to all House and Senate candidates. It also offers “information, data, news, message boards, and the ability for users to give anyone and everyone a thumbs up or down,“ he adds.

This sort of giving is driven by a desire to support like-minded politicians – no matter where they may reside, points out Mr. Kellstedt. The trend has been growing over the past six to eight years as the increasingly partisan worlds of talk radio and television have given national platforms to even the smallest-town politicians – and allowed them to pitch their opinions and websites to fellow travelers from every corner of the country.

While Kellstedt applauds the sense of empowerment this involvement nurtures, he also points out the significant underside to politicians beholden to far-flung donors.

“These politicians are going to have very divided loyalties,” he says, asking, for instance, what would New Yorkers say to Chuck Schumer if he takes in more money from outside the state of New York than inside it. “Whose bidding will he feel obligated to doing?” But, he adds, the scale of individual giving can’t match the growing threat posed by the avalanche of corporate giving unleashed by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporate interests to donate without fear of disclosure to non-profits that fund political ads.

Dave Levinthal of the CRP agrees that the scale of corporate giving dwarfs the dollars given by individuals, but he points out that the impact of an engaged electorate goes beyond the numbers. “It is easier than it has ever been in US history to support any political candidate people choose,” he says. Mr. Levinthal says that while his organization is neutral on whether political giving is a good or bad thing, he points out that it may encourage people without a lot of money to feel part of the system. “If the average citizen feels they now have a role in the political game, that can serve as a counterweight – small as it may be – to the large corporate and special interests who have increased wealth to spend on politics.”

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