The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

20 The New York Review

raised to 35 percent. In the 1990s
Viguerie formed a coalition of retire-
ment groups with names like United
Seniors and the 60 Plus Association.
When only about 7 percent of the $1.
million raised stayed with the organi-
zation, postal authorities investigated,
but since the money went to vendors
and postage it wasn’t illegal.
Even though it could be lucrative, di-
rect mail was neither cheap nor fast. A
postal worker had to physically deliver
the mail to the potential donor who then
needed to write a check and put it back
in the mail. A single piece of mail might
cost between $1 and $1.25 to produce.
One had to pay for postage, even if, like
Viguerie, one got the benefi t of postal
subsidies through nonprofi t partners.
The Internet and the ubiquity of on-
line payment systems have removed
these hurdles. Lists these days are big-
ger, more valuable, and have a shorter
half-life than those Viguerie mounted.
It’s “burn and churn,” as donors are
tapped out and new ones gathered. A
sparkling donor list like one from a
presidential campaign loses luster over
time, winding its way down in value
as it’s sold repeatedly, until folks who
signed up for Romney-Ryan in 2012
are e-mail bombed by a long-shot
Maryland congressional candidate six
years later.
In the quest to build lists, there are
no end of dodges to persuade peo-
ple to give their contact information.
Finding them is easy thanks to Face-
book. Advertising does the rest. “Rep.
Jim Jordan is leading the fi ght against
the Dems’ Impeachment Witch Hunt!
Thank him NOW,” requested the con-
servative advocacy group Freedom
Works in a Facebook advertisement.
“Stand with President Trump Against
Impeachment” and sign the petition.
Or “Wish Devin Nunes a Happy Birth-
day” by giving him your name, e-mail,
and cellphone. Many elderly consum-
ers fail to grasp that their personal in-
formation, which they bestow freely,
has monetary value for the people who
build and sell lists. It’s a commodity. A
high-quality list can fetch as much as
$15 per name from campaigns looking
for contributors.
Trump has assembled the most ex-
tensive small-donor list ever created by
a GOP presidential candidate. It’s a sig-
nifi cant source of his power. Previous
occupants of the Oval Offi ce used the
bully pulpit for policy and fundraised
on the side. But Trump has merged the
two, creating a fundraising pulpit. The
ceaseless marketing pleas to aid the
president against his evil opponents
keeps his voters invested, literally. It
enables the campaign to test messages
and plan for turnout. Trump’s hold
over his army of conservative retirees
also permits him to control the GOP
to an extent previous presidents only
dreamed of. If those further down the
food chain want to eat, they must fol-
low Trump’s lead. It behooves Republi-
can offi ceholders to fall in line. It’s not
lost on anyone in the campaign world
that Trump can monetize his donor list
at will.
The immediacy of e-mail allows
fund raising pitches to ride hot on the
news or blast out a link to the latest
Fox News appearance. The fi nancial
entreaties are honed through so-called
A/B testing, where a subset of a list is
tested to see which message hits the
right buttons. All kinds of information
can be gleaned from the recipient. Do

they open the e-mail? How quickly?
Do they follow the links? And most
importantly, do they donate? Since
consumers are accustomed to buying
online with PayPal or a credit card,
the wait for a return is now measured
in minutes not weeks. Even if a fund-
raising e-mail only returns 2 percent,
the cost per piece is mere pennies. The
good lists deliver quite a bit more.
Democrats have their own thriving
small-donor operations. Democratic
House impeachment managers who
presented the case against the presi-
dent before the Senate have also used
their viral moments to raise money. In
their campaigns, Democrats can be just
as oppositional as Republicans. “We
live in Donald Trump’s America, that’s
all that works,” bemoaned one Demo-

cratic campaign consultant, who frets
about the polarized world that awaits
his young children.
There are some crucial differences,
however. The donor demographic for
Democrats is broader and skews younger
than that of Republicans. The pitches
are often, although not always, more
wide-ranging than the sky-is-falling-
send-ten-dollars-now approach. While
Democratic legislative leaders are not
above, for example, forcing a bad vote
onto Republicans for electoral pur-
poses, their entire governance strategy
is not predicated on what activates their
base and shakes free small donations,
as is the playbook of Trump’s GOP.

Elise Stefanik, a Republican con-
gresswoman for North Country, New
York, was one of the biggest winners in
the House’s small-donor impeachment
sweepstakes. Stefanik pulled in over
$3.2 million in the last quarter of 2019,
more than committee chairman Schiff.
As the only Republican woman on the
Permanent Select Committee on Intel-
ligence, Stefanik contributed a desper-
ately needed dose of gender diversity
to the president’s congressional de-
fense team. Her vociferous support of
Trump, however, caught some by sur-
prise. Until the impeachment hearings,
Stefanik, who is thirty-fi ve, had a repu-
tation for bipartisanship and party-line
independence. Her mentor was Paul
Ryan, whom Trump praised and then
mercilessly belittled. Stefanik’s recent
arc captures the fundraising benefi ts of
a full embrace of the president.
Stefanik came to the GOP at an early

age. By fourteen she was volunteering
for the Republican State Committee
in Albany, just north of her hometown.
After graduating from Harvard, Ste-
fanik went to work for the Bush ad-
ministration and then as a staffer on
the Romney-Ryan presidential cam-
paign. In 2014 a Democratic retirement
left an open seat in the Adirondacks,
where Stefanik’s parents had a vaca-
tion home. She decamped from Wash-
ington, D.C., and carpetbagged her
way into the district. Karl Rove plowed
nearly $800,000 into the race to clear a
path for her in the Republican primary.
When she won her election, Stefanik
became the youngest congresswoman
in history, a title she lost to Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic con-
gresswoman and a fellow New Yorker,

four years later.
As a millennial, Stefanik held het-
erodox views. She believed climate
change was real. She publicly agonized
over her Obamacare vote before vot-
ing to kill the program in 2017. In her
fi rst term, Stefanik focused on local is-
sues affecting her district. In the GOP
presidential primary, Stefanik refused
to endorse any candidate. When it
came time for Trump’s convention, she
was noticeably absent. After Trump
won the 2016 election, however, Ste-
fanik took local party activists to his
In January 2017 Stefanik was ap-
pointed to the Intelligence Commit-
tee but continued to buck her party.
She voted against the GOP tax bill, as
it removed deductions from high-tax
states like New York. Stefanik also
voted against defunding the EPA and
favored criminal background checks
for gun purchases. A year later, the
Koch-funded Americans for Limited
Government denounced her for sup-
porting the fi ring of scandal-prone
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Then
Trump traveled to Stefanik’s district to
visit Fort Drum, the largest employer
in upstate New York, to sign a $717 bil-
lion defense bill. The congresswoman,
who sits on the Armed Services Com-
mittee, proudly touted the visit in a
press release.
In March 2019 Stefanik joined her
fellow Republican Intelligence Com-
mittee members on a letter calling for
Schiff to resign his chairmanship over
his handling of the Mueller investiga-
tion. Immediately after the letter, she
started gathering names of potential

donors with a Facebook ad going after
Schiff. “[He] has lost the confi dence of
his colleagues to serve as Chair of Intel.
He should resign. If you agree—ADD
YOUR NAME.” Her campaign experi-
mented with sending the ad to differ-
ent age groups and locations around
the country. Stefanik continued to
hunt for names with anti-Mueller and
anti- impeachment ads on Facebook
through the summer and fall. In early
October she upped the ante and pub-
licly demanded the censure of Schiff.
Not to be outdone, President Trump
called for Schiff’s arrest for treason.
By the time the fi rst impeachment
hearing rolled around, Stefanik was
ready. Two and a half hours after
the fi rst hearing, Stefanik sent out a
fundraising e-mail. Its subject line
SCHIFF,” and it included links to clips
of her questioning witnesses. At the
next hearing, Stefanik and Jim Jordan
pointedly sparred with Schiff over pro-
cedural points of order. A few hours
after the hearing concluded, another
e-mail and link. “Today millions of
Americans tuned into the second pub-
lic impeachment hearing,” it read. “It
started off with Adam Schiff BLOCK-
ING me from using the time yielded to
me by Devin Nunes.... Donate here to
help fi ght for facts instead of these par-
tisan games.”
As Stefanik’s profi le grew through
the hearings, her campaign turned to
Facebook to advertise for contributions
outside her district. Her leading Face-
book advertisement in November read:

My opponent is raising money
from the Hollywood liberals, like
Chrissy Teigen, calling me ‘trash.’
I’m just focusing on the TRUTH &
FAC T S in impeachment hearings.
But they can’t handle the truth!
DONATE NOW to help us fi ght
back against the Far-Left’s un-
hinged Hollywood machine!

According to the Facebook Ad Li-
brary, one of Stefanik’s target audi-
ences for the ad were female retirees
in California, Texas, and Florida. She
brought in nearly $1.9 million in the
fourth quarter from donors outside
New York, some $675,000 more than
she had raised from them in the previ-
ous nine months.
The downside for Stefanik and other
Republican Trump supporters is that
the president also engenders passion-
ate opposition. Schiff is sitting on a
campaign fund of more than $8 mil-
lion. All it took was one tweet from a
Democratic infl uencer on Twitter urg-
ing supporters to follow Tedra Cobb,
the Democratic opponent Stefanik
trounced in 2018, for the money to
start rolling in. Cobb raised $2 million
toward the 2020 election during the
impeachment hearings, drawn from
63,000 people across the country. The
average donation was $27.50.
By January, Stefanik was send-
ing fundraising appeals with House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s face altered
as if on a horror movie poster. Trump
retweeted the image, amplifying Ste-
fanik’s national profi le. When The
Washington Post called her out, it be-
came another opportunity to troll for
dollars. On Twitter, she thanked the
Post for promoting her pitch, with the
help of four winged banknote emo-
jis. “ fl ying in!” she tweeted

New York Representative Elise Stefanik receiving acknowledgment from Donald Trump
in his State of the Union address for her support during his impeachment proceedings,
Washington, D.C., February 2020

Mark W

ilson/Getty Images
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