The Viral Campaign Celebrates 72 Years


The Viral Campaign Celebrates 72 Years

R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Here’s a true-or-false quiz for you political animals out there:

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama pioneered a new form of campaign cash solicitation by perfecting the “viral fundraising” effort, a template in which thousands of enthusiastic but average people pony up small contributions—usually in the range of $30 to $150—in sufficient numbers to create and sustain the kind of momentum which brings excitement, and victory.

Answer: False.

Well…it’s true enough that while running for President in 2008 Obama raised record-breaking sums nearly every month for a period of at least seven months in 2008 (in the process out-pacing and out-spending his chief Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton by margins that would eventually exceed three-to-one). And it’s true that the average contribution was about $100. It’s also true that Obama would extend this formula into the general election, easily outspending John McCain in the fall. But the answer is still false.

Aside from the fact that many other candidates have done much the same thing in the recent past, including candidate and once-presumptive Democratic front-runner Howard Dean back in 2004 (the man most often misidentified as the first true internet candidate), the viral fundraising phenomena can be more accurately traced to the election of 1940. Anyone remember the name Wendell Willkie?

Willkie was the utility company executive and Wall Street attorney—popular at awards dinners and business luncheons for his engaging manner and energetic speaking ability—who challenged the established Republican front-runners (Thomas E. Dewey, Bob Taft, Arthur Vandenberg) for the GOP nomination, and would later run against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the fall of 1940. But in the run-up to the convention that year (and back then nominees were decided after the conventions were underway, not months in advance), and before Willkie was even officially a candidate, his followers and supporters were setting in motion something remarkable, back when the word “viral” would have had little if any application to politics.

One of Willkie earliest and most ardent fans was a young attorney and Yale graduate named Oren Root. Root and his closest friends—all apostles of Wendell Willkie—spent their late nights after work writing letters and stuffing envelopes with the sole purpose of creating a grassroots movement on behalf of Willkie. Root started small, with a mailing list of recent graduates of Yale and other Ivy League Schools, but he soon expanded the operation to include names and addresses of almost anyone he could find, anywhere. Sometimes Root and his team would include copies of flattering articles about Willkie from anti-FDR magazines like Fortune and Look, but many times the outbound envelope would just contain a letter.

Root’s efforts began to quickly pay dividends. As the cash rolled in, he was able to expand the operation—more stamps, more envelopes, more letters, more people working longer hours. Instead of several hundred dollars a week, they began taking in thousands. The phones at his law firm day job never stopped ringing, and eventually he was asked to take his political hobby elsewhere. Soon he would become a key campaign operative and chief fundraiser for Willkie. By the time the Republican convention opened its doors in Philadelphia that summer, Root’s fundraising effort was hauling in tens of thousands of dollars every week. By the time the convention ended, less than a week later, Root would go down in history as the most successful political fundraiser in American history.

Though Willkie had plenty of big-ticket donations to his campaign, the majority of those envelopes came back with small sums—$5, $10, $20, sometimes $50. There were no cell phones. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Skype, no internet. Root and his buddies just mailed letters.

It helped, of course, that Willkie was already becoming well-known to Americans in the popular press. Willkie was liked by some big publishers like Helen Rogers Reid of The New York Herald-Tribune, Gardner Cowles and John Cowles of Look magazine, Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, and Henry Luce. Back then the Luce family of publications included not only Fortune, but also the immensely popular Life and Time.

In 1940, despite a decade of great journalistic adulation for Roosevelt, FDR’s stock was falling due to the persistence of unemployment and deep recession (sound familiar?), and Willkie had become widely popular with reporters and journalists in the mainstream press for his understanding of the market forces which create jobs—and this, coupled with Root’s viral cash-getting efforts, propelled Willkie to the nomination of his party.

Obviously I am not comparing FDR or Willkie to President Obama or candidate Mitt Romney, but there are odd parallels which suggest two time-honored facts: history repeats itself, and we sometimes have short memories.

In our current political climate of cantankerous, winner-take-all divisiveness, nearly every issue is fuel for those fires that burn along the Red-Blue battle lines. (This week there was an odd moment of unity when both Democrats and Republicans came together to express shock and outrage that the uniforms for the U.S. Olympic Team—though designed by American clothier Ralph Lauren—were being manufactured in China). The flashpoints just within the last seven months have ranged from contraception to women’s health care, from same-sex marriage to the “mommy wars,” from immigration to voter registration.

Hardly any election year topic on CNN, Fox News or MSNBC has had common ground, and now, it seems, campaign fundraising joins the list of things for which Americans can find little agreement. Except that, at least in their public pronouncements, politicians “abhor” or “oppose” the seemingly unlimited spending capabilities of Super PACs, though in fact they claim to be helpless to find a solution.

Obama was once widely applauded in the popular media for his astonishing fundraising success in 2008, and what made it more amazing were those frequent small contributors—the $50, $100, $150 type donors. Obama toppled every record in American history, and his eventual total take in 2008 would be $750 million. At that time the GOP, which for decades had been the very model of efficiency when it came to attracting cash, had paid minimal attention to the internet as a tool for raising money. It was a mistake Republicans vowed never to make again. McCain’s lack of cash in the general election was, of course, not the pivotal issue—it had come down to the economy and little else. But for the first time in decades a Democrat was able to easily outspend a Republican in a Presidential election.

Now, the discussions of mega-givers have again reached a new fever pitch. Romney’s supporters recently hosted an exclusive soirée in the Hamptons—a high-dollar-per-plate fundraiser designed to haul in as much cash as would be possible on a single night. The event was a success, but outrage was immediate and shrill, as reporters and newscasters pounced on the story as if Obama had not himself been an accomplice to the same sorts of posh wingdings at the homes of Sarah Jessica Parker and George Clooney.

Money spent on election campaigns is an issue with deep roots in contemporary politics. Wendell Willkie’s fundraising capability was powerful, but it did not ultimately get him elected President; FDR won that year, but Willkie’s “viral” campaign had generated a record voter turnout nationally and managed to make it a relatively close race in the popular vote. A young, energetic Richard Nixon outspent his first Congressional opponent Jerry Voorhis in California’s 12th district in 1946, and he was roundly scolded by a prudish, clucking press for the barbarity of the act. Nixon had reportedly spent a total of $37,500, which Voorhis later claimed had come from oil interests. Then many years later, John F. Kennedy famously outspent Nixon in 1960, managing to win by a narrow margin.

Political labels and notions nobility have little to do with it. In his insurrectionist, anti-war quest for the Presidency in 1968, Eugene McCarthy had 50 deep-pocket donors who together accounted for $2.5 million in direct support—or, an average of $50,000 each. Four years later, Stewart Mott (General Motors) and Joan Pavlesky (Xerox Corporation) would each contribute mightily to George McGovern’s campaign: Mott would give $400,000, Pavlesky $337,000, nearly unprecedented sums in 1972. Meanwhile, in that same year of largely unregulated campaign financing, Nixon’s operatives were raising millions in cash, some of it corporate money laundered illegally through banks in Mexico and other countries. The result of that scandal was post-Watergate election law reforms and campaign spending limits.

Some candidates choose to spend their own wealth rather than be dependent on the financial support of special interests. Nelson Rockefeller dug into his family’s deep pockets, and his own mother became the sole contributor to a special PAC set up to support his bid for the highest office. Her “committee” provided Rocky with nearly $1.5 million in one haul. John Connally of Texas infamously spent many millions of his own cash in his 1980 pursuit of the GOP nomination, only to arrive at the convention that summer with one delegate, arguably the most expensive delegate in American history. Ross Perot’s independent Reform Party candidacy in 1992 operated primarily on his own virtually limitless well of cash—legal, expensive, but marginally effective, though he did manage to bring to his cause 19 million votes on election day. In 2004, after poor showings in early caucus and primary states, John Kerry invested large sums of his own money—enough, as it turned out, to resuscitate his lagging campaign and overcome his Democratic opponents.

Even the targeted small-donor template has been around the block a few times since Wendell Willkie. Using what was then cutting edge computer database technology, direct mail guru Richard Viguerie used surgically precise mailing lists in the 1970s and 80s to extract small and medium-sized contributions from thousands of givers to conservative causes, including the candidacies of Phillip Crane and later Ronald Reagan. Ralph Nader, as a candidate in 2000 and again in 2004, operated almost entirely from small contributions—also proving in the process that a genuine candidate can make a serious dent in the popular vote total, without spending hundreds of millions along the way.

The oft-cited figures of an Obama candidacy reaching the billion dollar mark this election cycle will likely prove to be greatly exaggerated, though this year’s total spending by Romney and Obama combined may easily shatter all previous spending records.  However, the viral mechanism which proved so successful four years ago has run headlong into multiple problems for the President: an anemic economy which makes it more difficult for many loyalists to inject those thousands of small contributions; a general drift toward disinterest or apathy by many of Obama’s previously enthusiastic younger backers; and insufficient strategic vision to anticipate the factors of joblessness and underemployment on total incoming campaign cash.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to rule in favor of Citizens United in its lawsuit with the Federal Election Commission largely invalidates (at least for now) the collective power of small givers—for better or worse. The case came down to questions of freedom of speech: can non-candidate entities with an interest in the outcome of election, no matter the size of their bankroll, have the right to express themselves politically. Constitutionally, of course, the answer is yes. Besides, newspaper publishers, owners and editors have long held that right, as have, to a slightly more regulated degree, owners of television networks.

But this year’s Super PAC activity will surpass anything imaginable even in the most farfetched visions of all the great 20th Century fundraisers combined. By most estimates the vast majority of that money will be spent on negative advertising, and the cash is already being deployed heavily in the big TV markets of the battleground states.

That Romney will catch up with and surpass the President’s fundraising and spending seems a given considering the number of enthusiasts willing to shower the anti-Obama PACs and pro-Romney groups with wads of money. The President will need to enlist the help of many more Sarah Jessica Parkers and George Clooney’s to maintain parity.

But in this recession the question for Americans is simple: to what end will all this spending matter? How much wiser as an electorate will we be when a billion dollars has been spent?

Mt Rushmore