$250 to attend. $1,000 to be a host. $1,500—sometimes more—for a picture with the famous senator or celebrity or whomever the campaign managed to get for this particular event.
If you’ve ever worked for a political campaign you know the drill—it’s all about the money. A typical campaign intern’s most important job is to call donors and invite them to fundraising events because running for office is all about the money.
Another important job of the undergraduate campaign intern is staffing those fundraisers. The tasks involved in staffing a fundraiser are twofold: greet the guest and ask if they have already provided us with a check or if they still need to.
This task is so important that new interns aren’t even allowed to be in charge of the spreadsheet with the record of who has paid and who hasn’t. And even if you are an experienced campaign intern, like myself, the finance staffer—your boss—will still hover around and make sure it’s all being recorded correctly.
Once everyone has arrived and all the checks are accounted for—and made out to the correct campaign fund—the mixing and mingling quiets down and the event begins. The guests and hosts gather around some podium, microphone, or makeshift stage where the speakers will give their talk. Each fundraiser is a little different, but they all start with the candidate’s stump speech.
You only need to hear one stump speech. If you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Every candidate has one, and it’s the same every time they give it—with a few variations based on the context of the event.
Unsurprisingly, the most recent fundraiser I attended followed the same pattern.
The most recent fundraiser I attended was, actually, on my birthday. I wasn’t bummed out about working on my birthday, though, because the fundraiser had better food than my actual birthday party thrown by my friends. The fundraiser was held at a nice restaurant in a trendy neighborhood in Columbus. The hor d’oeuvres were fantastic—my favorite was some kind of avocado dip and housemade chips.
As I ate the hor d’oeuvres, I chatted with one of the hosts and hostesses of the event. For privacy purposes I will simply call her the hostess and her husband the host. We engaged in an energetic conversation about Ohio State, their alma mater, and politics. Although I barely knew them, I knew for certain they were not much different from the hosts of the other political fundraisers I have been to.
The hostess had beautiful hair and nice clothes, and she spoke like an affluent woman from the suburbs of Columbus. Insert another city’s name in that description and you get every other fundraiser host that I’ve ever met.
Her husband was the head of some important, liberal-minded company. They reminded me a lot of the couple that hosted a fundraiser I had staffed for a campaign I worked on in the past. That couple had a big, beautiful solar-powered house in an affluent suburb of Cleveland.
Although I’m a liberal and I’ve always voted democrat, I often feel very different from the members of my party who run these important fundraising events. My parents are both liberal democrats, but I didn’t grow up with money—and certainly not enough to spend thousands of dollars on a political campaign.
One of the most common criticisms of conservatives and Republicans or their candidates for office is that they care more about money than people. This idea manifests itself in a number of policies—from being against social welfare programs to preferring school choice instead of better funding for public schools.
It’s difficult, though, to avoid seeing that the liberals and Democrats who criticize the other side are just as guilty of prioritizing money over people.
I’ve been to a wide range of political campaign events over the course of my campaign career—from huge public rallies to these small fundraisers in the private rooms of nice restaurants or in the beautifully-decorated homes of doctors, successful professors, or the like. From what I have seen, there is an immense difference between these kinds of events.
If you have money, you get one-on-one time with the political candidate and the celebrity who is endorsing the candidate. The more money you contribute to the campaign, the better the experience.
At one event I staffed, it cost $2,600 to take a picture with the celebrity guest.
Of course, there are contribution limits. The FEC rules vary depending on the type of candidate and the type of contributor, but currently in Ohio an individual can contribute approximately $12,000 to a candidate’s PAC.
As you could probably guess, the more money an individual contributes, the more attention he or she receives from the campaign in general. The biggest donors often receive personal phone calls from the candidate him or herself, asking for ideas and opinions about policies. It may not be a stretch to call it buying influence, however, I’m aware of how pessimistic that characterization sounds.
In this world of money-driven, candidate-centered politics, it’s no wonder to me that populism has taken hold. How could democrats and liberals who supported Hilary Clinton in 2016 be so blindsided by the overwhelming support for a candidate who claimed to be a Washington outsider.
Disregarding the enormous irony and the contradictions in Trump’s claims to be a populist, fighting for the average American worker, he at least tapped into the feelings that many Americans, myself included, hold about American politics.
Is the system broken? It’s tough to say. The system itself is so complicated. But one thing is for sure: money drives political campaigns. In my experience, the more money you have, the closer you feel to the politicians who run our democracy—so what about the rest of us?