Commentary Magazine


Campaign Raffles and Political Cynicism

At the New Republic, Walter Kirn pinpoints one big problem with the incessant Obama dinner sweepstakes fundraisers:

The problem with these small-stakes lotteries that are currently clogging up our inboxes isn’t that they cheapen politics (it is what it is, especially lately) but that they reveal, in a depressing way that makes the whole enterprise seem almost futile, just how insanely expensive it has become. They offer as prizes places at power’s table that simply aren’t available to anyone but the odds-beating elect. They ritualize a sense of mass despair at ever achieving influence in normal ways, from getting somewhat but not filthy rich (R) to getting organized (D). Whatever they generate by way of cash or names and addresses for campaign mailing lists is canceled out by the cynicism they spread (or partake of and embody).

The raffles get at the heart of the question of why we donate to political campaigns. Small-money donors, the ones who are supposedly the targets of the dinner sweepstakes, aren’t contributing because of a desire for political influence (not that winning a raffle prize dinner would help much in that regard). Most people — even large donors — give to candidates because they believe in the political cause. A 2004 study by George Washington University found that zero percent of small-money donors who gave to President Bush did so because the contribution was tied to an event they wanted to attend. Two-percent of small-money donors gave to Sen. John Kerry for this reason. And this wasn’t affected by the size of the contribution — only one percent of large-money donors from each campaign were motivated by an event they wanted to attend.

In other words, someone who’s already an Obama supporter and email subscriber isn’t likely to be convinced to donate because of a long-shot raffle dinner. This person might enter the sweepstakes, but he probably would have contributed to the campaign anyway.

So who do these fundraisers target? The most likely answer is those people who are politically apathetic but have warm-ish feelings about President Obama and First Lady Michelle — that wide swath of the American public that contributes to his high likability ratings but isn’t really paying much attention to the election. Maybe these are the people who scour free sweepstakes websites, or read gossip blogs, or have very little interest in politics at all but think that a presidential raffle dinner they read about in the newspaper would be fun to enter.

So these people enter themselves into the drawing. And not only do they fill out the “new group” of grassroots contributors the Obama campaign is constantly touting, they also start to receive regular propaganda missives from his headquarters.

But could this backfire? Could the constant stream of annoying, too-cute raffle emails end up making some Obama supporters feel more cynical — and disillusioned — about this election? So far, the raffles haven’t seemed to be very effective as a fundraising tool, but it’s probably too early to tell. We won’t know for awhile whether they’ll eventually pay off by giving Obama a broader base, or hurt him by turning off supporters.