JAN 19, 2017, Emily Dreyfuss
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Democrats are falling apart. For the price of a latte, one political techie thinks he can bring them back together.
ON THE EVE of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democrats are lost. The Democratic National Committee has not elected a new leader. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters are still blaming each other for her loss. The party holds no branch of the federal government and fewer than half of state legislatures. What in mid-2016 looked like a fractured Republican party is increasingly uniting behind its new leader. The Democratic Party looks like its falling apart.
Maybe money can put it back together. Longtime Democratic fundraiser and political operative Jonathan Zucker today is launching It Starts Today, an online donation platform he believes can reassemble the Democratic Party for less than five dollars per month—$4.68, to be exact. That’s one cent for every congressional seat in play.
Zucker’s plan is to pour those monthly donations into one political action committee that will disperse the total evenly to every single Democrat running for a congressional race in the general election in 2018. It’s a one-click approach to building a 50-state strategy based on small donations. Because every candidate will get the same amount, whether a far-left Bay Area progressive or pro-gun, anti-abortion blue dog, the PAC—if it actually works—could act as a kind of de facto public financing that lifts all Democrats.
‘How many Obamas are we not finding because when they tried to run for Congress they didn’t have enough money?’
JONATHAN ZUCKER, IT STARTS TODAY
“At 3 AM on election night, after it started to sink in that Clinton had no path to victory, I saw the sniping start between the Bernie people and the Hillary people on my Facebook feed,” Zucker says. “We cannot afford this.”
Zucker has already made his career marrying technology and political fundraising. He’s the founder of Democracy Engine, a suite of digital tools that candidates and organizations can use to raise money. He’s also the former executive director of fundraising platform ActBlue, the one-click small-donation tool Bernie Sanders famously used to raise an average of $27 bucks per donor to keep pace with Clinton’s blue chip fundraising machine. It Starts Today is his attempt to use what he’s learned about tech and fundraising to take the House and Senate back. The key to his strategy: Instead of focusing on fractious primaries or specific candidates, back everyone in the general election equally.
Once the primaries are over and the nominee is set, It Starts Today will send out a check—and keep cutting checks every week until Election Day. And—counterintuitively—if enough people paying just a small amount subscribe, those checks could add up to more money than candidates would receive by relying on wealthy donors. Following federal election guidelines, the It Starts Today PAC is acting as a legal intermediary able to fund as much money to candidates as it can, provided each individual donor whose money passes through the PAC does not give more than the $2,700 legal limit to any individual candidate.
This shouldn’t be a problem: Zucker is only asking donors to give a total of $56 per year. If everyone who gave Sanders or Clinton money—some 10 million donors—gave just $5 per month to congressional candidates, Zucker says, It Starts Today would be able to hand each candidate $2.5 million dollars to run on in 2018. “You’re not having to raise this money, and you’re accountable to millions of people, each of whom only gave you a little bit,” he says.
The Long Shots
That’s a great dream, but a highly unlikely one. To put that figure into perspective, Barack Obama’s lauded populist campaign garnered donations from just over 4.5 million people. Most challengers running in congressional races raise around $200,000. Still, if It Starts Today were able to raise even that much, it could have a real effect. “It might give your local official incentive to run, knowing that you wont have to go into debt to do it for a hopeless cause,” says Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute.
And it’s in those seemingly hopeless races where political scientists see the potential for real change. Under the current funding model, Malbin says national political organizations tend to focus their resources on competitive races where slight advantages could tip the results. It Starts Today, on the other hand, is agnostic about district or probability of victory—everyone gets the same amount. Long shots get the same backing as sure things and candidates in swing districts. Individual donors are rarely eager to similarly distribute their largesse because who wants to throw their money at a lost cause?
But it’s often seeming lost causes that can bring a party back. Currently, the Democrats lack a deep bench of up-and-comers. Challenging incumbents in more races is how you build a bench of candidates and professionals who know how to run campaigns. Non-competitive races are great proving grounds for new politicians to take risks, to try out messages, to learn the ropes of political advertising, and to let powerfully good politicians find their way to the national stage. Take Barack Obama, a state senator who made a long-shot run for US Senate. “How many Obamas are we not finding because when they tried to run for Congress they didn’t have enough money and we never heard from them again?” Zucker asks.
And when more people run, more people vote. Democrats in red states and Republicans in blue states are more likely to vote when there’s someone on the ticket who they care about—even if that candidate has little chance at winning. That’s what Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, likes best about Zucker’s newest venture. “This is exactly the kind of engagement we need,” Overton says.
With It Starts Today, the buy-in for Democrats to unite behind every single Democrat running for congress in 2018 is roughly equivalent to the cost of a latte. If Bernie Bros and Clintonistas can give up one coffee a month to come together, the gains for the party could be big.
Correction 8:19am ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the name of the organization. It is It Starts Today.