Can SaaS principles transform political campaigns as we know them?

In life, they say you get what you pay for. That is no less true in politics, which is fueled by campaign donations and lobbying dollars that move policy on every important issue under the sun. The disclosed expenditures of the DC lobbying industry are more than $3 billion per year, while just the presidential political campaigns spent more than $1.5 billion in 2016.

Despite the key role that money plays in American politics, almost no one actually donates to a political campaign. According to the campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets, just 0.68% of American adults donated more than $200 throughout the 2016 campaign cycle.

Watching House of Cards is certainly more fun than funding the real House of Cards, but the lack of engagement from voters in the money side of campaigns has serious, deleterious effects. As The New York Times pointed out, just 158 families donated roughly half of the early dollars in the 2016 election, giving this remarkably small sliver of the American people extraordinary influence over the course of policies that affect all of us.

Unsurprisingly, the report cards for political institutions remain near their historical nadirs in the United States. Gallup polls show that just 15% of Americans approve of the work that Congress is doing, and cynicism increasingly runs rampant about the government’s ability to improve the quality of life for citizens.

At their heart, political campaigns are no different than any other organization: they need to raise revenues and then spend it to meet their objectives. Organizations are responsive to who pays them, and therefore, the only way to connect politics back to the everyday lives of people is to connect more pocketbooks of voters directly into the revenue model of DC.

Lawrence Lessig, in his book Republic, Lost, believed such a system would likely tamp down the passions that exist in the present system. He wrote, “Yet in a system that was exclusively a small-donor system, candidates could not afford to fund their campaigns from the extremes only. Instead, with, for example, a voucher system, they would need to reach a much wider range of citizens. That breadth would preclude extremism. Like a mandatory voting system, a small-donor-funding regime would put constant pressure on representatives to hew to the mainstream.”

Small donations have become popular on both the left and the right. Bernie Sanders raised tens of millions of dollars from donors giving less than $200, and Donald Trump has effectively leveraged his various platforms to drive Republicans to the highest small donor numbers in the party’s history.

Yet, it’s not just small donations that are needed, but reliable streams of small donations, so that politicians could start to transition from dialing-for-dollars around-the-clock to actually doing the actual work of politics. It’s the difference between selling songs one at a time, and a subscription service that has dedicated customers paying every month. In short, it is SaaS, but for…

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