Welcome to the Party

Sarah Marcus, nursing a $5 Miller Lite from the cash bar at the the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, wants somebody to beat President Bush.

“I know Republicans have more money than Democrats and that [irritates] me,” she said, referring to the disparity in political fundraising.

Marcus, 22, was mixing with about 200 Hill staffers, grad students, legal assistants, consultants and others who paid $50 in advance or $75 at the door for the privilege of filling the spaces between five meager red, white and blue balloon displays in a basement ballroom. Those prices also bought them the right to drink $6 cocktails, laugh at jokes by political comedian Al Franken and listen to a 15-minute stump speech by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).

As political fundraisers go, this was a typical Washington low-dollar event: No-frills. Short. Casual. Young. The attendees may have been passionate about the upcoming presidential election, but few were in a position to write a big check for one of the candidates.

Nonetheless, presidential campaigns, party activists and professional fundraisers from both major parties are targeting these folks because today’s $50 donors could be $2,000-big fish in 2008, and hitting them now goes a long way in terms of future political development. “The best way to get people into giving,” explained Andrew Langer, a lobbyist and young Republican backer, “is start them early and not ask them for what they can’t give.”

Candidates make most of their money from those who can give the legal limit of $2,000. But the majority of individual donors are low-dollar contributors, according to Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

Erick Gustafson, a 32-year-old lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, helped organize a Bush fundraiser in early November. “The $2,000 market in D.C. is tapped,” he said. So he and his friends decided to target young Washingtonians who have not donated to a campaign. They spread the word in phone calls and e-mails. “We were really targeting the worker bees in Washington,” said Rich Nolan, a lobbyist with Ball Janick, who also helped organize the Bush campaign event.

Three years ago, Nolan was one of those worker bees. He gave $100 to the Bush-Cheney campaign. “I was at very much a different place in life,” he explained. Now he and his wife — the parents of a three-year-old daughter and an infant son — are in a position to do more. “This time around we gave 500 bucks and will probably wind up maxing out” at the legal limit of $2,000 each, he said.

Howard Dean used his campaign Web site, and other political community sites such as Meetup and MoveOn, to attract contributions of less than $200, which accounted for more than 60 percent of his $41 million total. Dean’s strategy combined an aggressive use of the Web and e-mail timed to coincide with community events.

The Clark campaign created the “C-Company” and the Kerry campaign has “Kerry Core” to reach the same young, professional demographic. Events typically cost less than $100 and feature entertainment designed to appeal to that age group. For example, pop star Moby performed at a Kerry Core event aboard the Intrepid museum in New York.

While a majority of Bush’s money — 53 percent — comes from big donors the president has used the advantages of his office to raise money at every level. Bush brought in $11.2 million in contributions of $200 or less in the fourth quarter of 2003 -– $1.8 million more in small donations than Dean.

Groups of young, politically active Washingtonians have organized to help attract low-dollar donors. YdemsCan and Winning Margins are two political action committees that support Democratic candidates. Young Elephants organizes Republicans and the Women Under Forty PAC hosts small fundraisers for women candidates of either party.

These organizations try to raise money for challengers and incumbents in close races. The groups are at least as social as they are political.

Alex Annett, 33, started the PAC of Young Elephants in 1998 while still in law school at Georgetown University. “The initial thought was ‘let’s bring people together’,” Annett explained. “Fundraising is an expensive game. We’re all not capable of raising large sums of money,” he said. Young Elephants helps recruit and groom a new generation of Republican campaign donors.

Sean Spicer, the communications director for the House Budget Committee who organizes Young Elephants events, said, “the bottom line on anything in Washington, whether it’s a happy hour or a fundraiser is whether it’s a cool thing to do.” By organizing events that cost between $35 and $50, Young Elephants tries to entice people who don’t necessarily work in politics to invest in the party by offering fun, unique social gatherings.

During the 2002 election cycle, Young Elephants donated $27,500 to 24 Republican congressional candidates. During the last presidential campaign, it gave and $34,650 to 33 candidates. “We give to members who really need the money, challengers and incumbents in competitive races,” Annett said.

In 1986, John Edgell and friends started Winning Margins, a Democratic PAC, in the same vein. “We were all 22, 23 years old with raging hormones,” explained the lobbyist. “We had beer blasts on the Hill and we would all pass the hat. At the end of the night, we would wind up with too much money. Someone suggested we give it to a candidate.”

Today, the model has helped develop a new generation of political donors. Edgell says Winning Margins’ only expenses are maintaining its bare-bones Web site and 3,500-person e-mail list, and buying beer. “Anybody with a buddy list of 50 people can get six people,” to come to a fundraiser Edgell contended. “Thirty-five bucks is what you’d spend if you go out anyway.”

In early December, Winning Margins hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). According to Edgell, the event at the Frederick Douglass House in Southeast Washington raised $6,000 for the first-term senator’s reelection bid. During the 2002 election cycle, the group donated $65,000 to Democratic candidates and another $16,930 to state parties and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

It is not entirely about the money. Many supporters -– Democrats and Republicans — describe a strong attachment to their candidate or to a campaign’s message, whether it’s positive or negative. Campaigns count on this psychological investment. A supporter who gives even a small amount is more like to vote, more likely to encourage his or her friends to vote and more likely to donate in the future.

Matt Kibbe, a fundraiser at the conservative think-tank Citizens for a Sound Economy, and his wife, Terry, opened their Capitol Hill home to friends — and friends of friends — to raise money for Bush. They charged guests $150 in November to hear a speech from Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, an old friend of Matt’s from his days as a Hill staffer. Terry, who works at the CATO Institute, said the event brought in close to $38,000 for the president’s reelection effort.

But for the Kibbes, the amount of money isn’t everything. “I think writing a check is one form of activism,” Matt explained. “If you’re more wealthy, you can be more active with your check book. If you don’t have money you can be more active in other ways. Every type of activism is good for a campaign.”

Bush supporter Nolan, who co-hosted the event at the Kibbes’ said, “it was more about the emotional commitment to working with this administration. The cash was really secondary but it was nice to be able to do [it].”

Pride is an important factor for donors. It’s one thing to vote for a candidate, but quite another thing to part with one’s hard-earned dollars for the sake of a campaign. Some low-dollar donors say their donations help strengthen their own political identity.

“It’s a nice thing to know that in a small way, I helped contribute to the president’s reelection,” Spicer said. “You’re not going to be a Ranger or a Pioneer, but everyone has their own little way to do their part.”