Political Crowdfunding and the Election that Could

Crowdfunding has been promoted as a way to change the current political fundraising system. Rather than raising most funds from a wealthy few, crowdfunding allows the general public to fundraise equally well by pooling small donations made my many. It’s an old concept that’s been given a new, digital platform. Crowdfunding in political campaigns became popular with President Obama’s presidential bid in 2008, but it was his reelection campaign in 2011 that really displayed its power. That year, 72 percent of Obama’s fundraising total of $118.8 million was raised by donations of less than $1,000, and 48 percent came from donations of $200 or less. Romney’s numbers were 18 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Romney raised more money from the wealthy few, but Obama raised more money from the many, and he won both the fundraising game - by about $60 million - and the election.

While many trumpeted this as a win for the common man, a tipping point where political elections would no longer be financed by millionaires and billion-dollar corporations who would then shape policy decisions to benefit their needs, the fact remains that both candidates still accepted enormous contributions from such entities. Whether through official campaigns, or through backdoor Super PACs, huge corporations and wealthy individuals, both with political agendas, remain strong contributors in political elections.

But with a new breed of politician, and a more engaged public, this could change. Just recently, Bryan Parker of Oakland, California, a lawyer, health care executive, and Port of Oakland Commissioner, who recently served as the chair of the Oakland Workforce Investment Board, took a new step in crowdfunding political campaigns. He used the crowdfunding site Crowdtilt to gauge support for a mayoral run in 2014. He announced that if he could raise $20,000 in ten days, he would run for mayor against incumbent Jean Quan. He raised $23,000 in less than 24 hours thanks to 79 donors. Soon after, he set a new goal of $50,000 and within the ten-day campaign window he raised $50,969 from 167 donors.

Parker said that he is using a crowdfunding platform because “For too long, a few people have funded most politics in this town,” and because of this, policy decisions have not been molded by the majority. He addedthat his use of crowdfunding"is a signal of what kind of administration [Parker] would have."It’s a promising start, but the question remains whether Parker will have the persistence, determination, and communications team that can keep him loyal to this platform throughout the campaign. The fundraising cap for the mayoral election is expected to be around $400,000, and it is expected that Parker would have to raise the maximum amount to have a chance at beating Quan. Most political races are won by the candidate who can raise the most money, and ousting an incumbent is often even more expensive. However, beating the incumbent this time around might not be so hard.

Quan’s tenure has been rife with controversy. Her handling of the Occupy Oakland movement left many city residents and business owners despondent, questioning whether she could govern effectively. Even more importantly, questions arose as to whether or not, as a longtime activist with a history of participating in Occupy-like protests, her idea of what was best for the city even aligned with that of her constituency. While many Oakland residents and business owners complained about the unsanitary and violent behavior of the Occupy Oakland demonstrations and related protests, which cost the cash-strapped city millions of dollars, Quan went back and forth with the Occupy body, taking actions to remove their encampment in front of City Hall, followed by actions to aligning herself with the cause; a hard pill to swallow for the many residents and business owners who had endured nights of violent protests and property damage. Her administration has overseen the resignation of three police chiefs, and an increase in crime in an already dangerous city. In March, Quan was polling at only 23 percent.

An advantage of crowdfunding campaigns is the correlation between political contributions and voting. People who have donated money to a campaign, even if only a few dollars, are much more likely to actually get out and vote for that candidate on election day. It is an important incentive, especially in local elections where voter turnout tends to be low. This type of campaign may be a smart move for Parker, especially if he can use it to capitalize on two recent changes in voting habits. Based on the last mayoral election, Oakland residents are becoming more politically active. 120,000 voters participated in the 2010 mayoral election, compared to 84,000 in 2006, a 43 percent increase in voter participation. Also, for the first time ever, black Americans are voting in greater numbers than white Americans, which might help Parker, a black American, win in a city with a black population of 28 percent.

If Parker sticks to crowd-based, small-donation fundraising and wins, it would be the first time that such a campaign has been successful, and it might set a precedent for future political campaigns. But this kind of campaigning depends on a very strong communications and marketing team, which Parker does not yet have. His social media pages are lacking followers, substance, and adherence to social media’s best practices, and his “Tilting Oakland Forward” slogan sounds more like a city slowly falling on its face than triumphantly marching towards a better tomorrow. But if he can pull the right team together, and if he can stick to his guns, he just might make history.

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Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on political communication & city infrastructure development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice, and Spanish. Email her at ck439@georgetown.edu.