« The Great Slate
11.05.2018

Politics as Sport

It is the night before the election, and I hope you vote tomorrow! But Americans are told two contradictory things about voting, both of which are true.

The first is that every vote counts, that there's nothing more important than voting, and that those who don't vote have no right to complain.

The second is that the national election will be decided by a small number of battleground districts, outside of which one's Federal vote doesn't matter. Even in a feverish political year, most of us live in districts where the outcome is not in doubt. Moreover, our vote is predetermined by factors like education level, religion, and income.

By an accident of history, the United States has enjoyed a stable political system for long enough to make this kind of political data mining effective. That it will fail the first time there is a significant re-alignment in U.S. politics does not deter its practitioners, and in fact one of the great questions tomorrow is whether we'll see the signs of such a realignment, or whether the midterms will follow old patterns and the predictions hold true.

We've reconciled our contradictory views of voting by learning to talk about elections like we talk about sports. Both are now the province of a tiny group of millionaire specialists, with a larger but equally exclusive group of analysts to provide guidance and commentary. The job of a citizen is to pick a team to root for and turn out on game day. It is understood that these citizen-fans will never get to go on the field, but their enthusiasm helps the team and so it is important that they show up.

One thing I like about the FiveThirtyEight predictions website is how it makes the parallel explicit by intermixing election coverage with sports. While it's understood that there's an element of chance in both domains, in the statistical limit, the thinking goes, the outcome of every contest depends on structural factors that can be teased out of the data.

But of course, politics is not sports. The analogy works when there are two teams who play by a shared set of rules, and a notional referee to arbitrate disputes. It works when policy differences are insignificant, rather than a matter of life or death to people in the stands.

Today, American politics has turned into a game of Calvinball, where the rules are made up by the party in power, and the referee (what remains of a centrist mainstream media) keeps getting hit with a folding chair by one of the players. With every blow, they toot the whistle, proud of their ability to stay impartial under such trying conditions, hoping the old rules come back into force before they are knocked out cold.

This gap between the treatment of politics as sport, and the reality of politics as an elemental struggle for power, is to me the salient feature of the 2018 election.

There are pundits who go beyond even the sports analogy to treat our political moment like weather, removing any trace of human agency. They have spent two years peering at the horizon to measure the height of a blue wave, as if it were a natural phenomenon rather than a collective decision that every one of us will be asked to participate in tomorrow.

So how do we reconcile the tension between our cherished beliefs about voting, and the determinist view of elections put forward by data science?

For Democrats this year, one way through the impasse has been by shifting the emphasis from voting to donations. This year has seen records broken in individual campaign donations through ActBlue, a payment platform for direct political contributions. I spent most of the last year siphoning money out of the pockets of people in safely Democratic districts into one such project called the Great Slate.

There's a lot to be said for augmenting voting with political giving as a way to make people participants in our democracy. Donation caps make such giving somewhat democratic, since even Jeff Bezos can't contribute more than $2,700 to a candidate. While that is a lot of money, it is not a paralyzing kind of money—it just means you have to find some friends to donate with you.

And because the number of small-dollar donations, and not just the aggregate amount, is an input to the various forecasting models that can determine a candidate's fate, you can truthfully tell people that even a token gift can have an impact on a race they care about.

Most importantly, giving money creates a bond between donors and campaigns that I did not appreciate when I started the Great Slate. People came to care about the campaigns they were helping, and the various tools of social media made it easy to create a human connection beyond the transactional. Money flowed in one direction, and hope and optimism flowed in the other.

So that is the good side of political giving—at its best, it restores agency and fights despair, it can knit together people from geographically distant areas, and from the point of view of our democracy it's better to run campaigns on small donor money than to rely on corporations or the very rich.

That said, everything is awful, and that includes this experiment in crowdfunding campaigns.

One problem is that all this new money is still spent in the same old ways. It buys obnoxious political advertising and nourishes an ecosystem of D.C. swamp creatures. The last thing we need is to direct a major new revenue stream into this morass.

A bigger problem is that the lack of limits on outside spending negates the effect of grassroots fundraising in any race where that outside money decides to step in. The kinds of 'uncoordinated' campaigns permitted by Citizens United mean that small-donor fundraising can only help in marginal districts where that money is not a factor. The legality of unlimited outside spending fosters a cynicism among both voters and donors that is hard to fight.

But the worst problem with giving as an outlet for civic engagement is the bad incentives it creates for politicians. Candidates can maximize their fundraising by appealing to a donor's fantasy of what a red-state progressive should look like, even if that fantasy has little appeal to the voters in their district.

We see the outlines of the problem in candidates like Beto O'Rourke, Randy Bryce or MJ Hegar. Bryce and Hegar both reached a national audience with a viral video that has helped them raise record amounts of money. Hegar raised $4,123,829 and Bryce raised $7,543,590, staggering amounts for a House district, that they poured back into fundraising. Beto similarly broke all fundraising records in Texas, pulling in a flood of California money to a campaign that has nourished our fantasies about how a progressive Democrat might fit into a ten-gallon hat.

I'm writing this the day before the election, so it's possible that Beto, Hegar and Bryce will win. I hope they win! But I worry about a dynamic that rewards charismatic candidates who appeal to faraway donors, rather than effective candidates who can win local elections. The two will not be the same.

(People who remember my previous life might see an echo of the 'investor storytime' dynamic in Silicon Valley, where startups have learned to optimize for investor persuasion rather than revenue.)

What I fear in 2020 is a Frankenstein's monster of YouTube, Twitter, email and ActBlue that breaks all fundraising records, pours that money into the D.C. pockets, and doesn't bring us any closer to political power.

I think there is a better way than fundraising to make our politics participatory, and I think such a model has been pioneered here in Lancaster, PA. But instead of writing more about this now I have to go knock doors, because this will be a close race, and as they say, every vote counts.

Tomorrow we'll find out if the Lancaster model was right or wrong, and I guess I can write about that accordingly.

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