Washington Whispers: Deliver the Letter, but Never is Better!
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Political solicitations—we’ve all been overrun by them, whether phone calls that come every ten minutes just at dinner time, emails that invade our computers, or a flood of snail mail clogging our mailboxes. If you respond to one request, suddenly you are inundated by what seems like hundreds more, some coming from sources you’ve never heard of. The solicitations arrive from candidates and parties, but also from citizen-organizations trying to lobby the government on a variety of issues. Nowadays, the political season is never-ending.
Every time my landline rings—the one that has caller ID—I find myself running from the living room to the back room of my apartment, where that phone sits, to see if someone I should speak with is calling. If not, I don’t answer. But I no sooner return to the other end of my abode, settle in to read or write or watch TV, when the damn thing rings again and I must rush back to check anew. These days, that race from one end of my apartment to the other accounts for half my daily exercise.
When the same number comes up on caller ID repeatedly, I do finally cave in and answer in order to find out who the hell it is and tell them to stop. If the call turns out to be from a political source I favor, I tell them I am in sympathy with their cause but I never contribute over the phone or online, only by mail and please take me off their list. I treat these callers kindly because I’ve been on that side of phone banking—not to raise money, but to get out the vote for candidates or to reach out to other people on issues I care about.
It should come as no surprise to regular readers of Washington Whispers that I am most familiar with the Democrats’ mailing and calling techniques as well as that of other liberal organizations, and therefore am best equipped to comment on them rather than on those of the Republicans or their right-wing allies. I get no phone calls from Donald Trump.
Many of the Democrats’ written requests for money importune us with the specter of looming midnight Federal Election Commission (FEC) deadlines. But nothing of legal consequence occurs if a self-set monetary goal is not met by a given cutoff. Campaigns care about the FEC deadlines because, as a practical matter, the more money that campaigns raise early, the better they can make budgetary decisions for hiring and other essential electioneering matters. FEC reports of high contributions also make the candidate appear more viable and thus encourage further donations—the “everybody loves a winner” principle.
Some entreaties masquerade as surveys asking for our opinion on what the Democratic Party’s priorities should be, though everything on their list really needs to be of equal priority. Some organizations ask us to sign petitions on this issue or that, accompanied by an appeal for funds.
Other requests write of the many terrible ills that we will be unable to fix if we lose the Senate, the House, or the White House or don’t gain Democratic seats. Or they write of the many threats to democracy that currently engulf us and must be fought.
All true. The litany of problems these supplicants raise—whether voting rights, civil rights, reproductive choice, gun regulation, climate change, Covid-19 relief, infrastructure, or others—are real. The obstacles to solving them if we cannot overcome McConnell-led filibusters with a heartier Senate majority and prevent stonewalling Republican senators from gaining the majority—are real. And the money is sorely needed, especially since Republican politicians get contributions from large companies and billionaires, and have Political Action Committees, (better known as PACS), to get around donation limits that we plebeians must abide by.
While the Democrats also receive contributions from some deep pocket sources, it is never as much as their Republican counterparts. Many progressives have eschewed corporate contributions altogether. Instead, they court large numbers of small donors. Thus, their requests are for smaller amounts, sometimes as little as five dollars. But the appeals are made more frequently.
This raising of money is necessary. The frantically frequent contacts are understandable. But for some of us receiving the requests, it has become just too much. And for the senders, I suspect it must be reaching a point of diminishing returns.
At a certain level, the annoyance factor can turn contributors off. The constant hyperbole (even though legitimate concerns underlie it) plays on the nerves of the recipients. No rational person appreciates being pushed into a chronic state of high alarm.
In addition, although emails and letters may set out in some detail the urgent reasons why we should support a candidate or cause, very few tell us with specificity how the contribution will be used to further that cause. I do not mean that they should provide a line-item financial statement, but rather, say something about how such contributions will be used to fight the good fight.
Think of the following contrast:
You receive letters from two different legal organizations. One recites a catalogue of horrors—people denied their rights, lynched, or whatnot—and you are asked to give money to fight the injustice. The other letter recites horrors as well but tells you that they have brought a particular lawsuit to challenge the injustice and need money to support that suit. Or, even better—as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has often done in its letters—tells you of particular such lawsuits it has won. Which is more likely to spark your enthusiasm to contribute monetary support?
The SPLC originally came to my notice when it sent me a letter informing that a judgment it won had put the Alabama Ku Klux Klan out of business. That letter did not even ask me for money, but it inspired me to contribute. Even if the SPLC had not won, hearing what concrete action they were taking was more stirring than a mere catalogue of issues at stake and a general plea for help.
Perhaps professional fundraisers assume we don’t care to be buried in such details. Or that in this age of short attention spans, they could not keep our interest long enough to deliver them. Conceivably, they think a litany of horrors grabs attention more than proposals for a cure. Maybe I am an outlier in my reaction to such things. But I prefer quality over quantity. Give me fewer donation requests with more substance in them. I suspect others who are bombarded by these solicitations may feel the same.
I’d love to hear from other Insiders about their experiences as “small dollar donors,” as we’re known in the campaign game. Of course, if any of you are billionaire donors, feel free to weigh in, too!
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.