The Ballot or the Bank

In the post-Citizens United era, will traditional get-out-the-vote organizing be overshadowed by get-out-the-wallet political action?

By Brentin Mock Nov 14, 2013

Two things happened quietly on Oct. 8 that could have much louder impacts on the 2016 presidential race.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, in which the named plaintiff is seeking to lift caps on how much money individuals can donate directly to candidates and campaigns in federal elections. 

The second thing: Quentin James, a 25-year-old organizer who has spent almost a decade working for civic engagement groups like NAACP and the Sierra Club, was announced as one of the first key hires for the super PAC that hopes to launch Hillary Clinton into the White House. James will lead outreach to black Americans for the Ready For Hillary PAC, which already has over 25,000 donors. "Our job is to build grassroots energy to convince Hillary Clinton to run for President," James said in an interview at Union Station in downtown D.C. shortly after his appointment was announced. 

Ready For Hillary splashed the media all this week for its first national convening of donors, prompting conservative writer Myra Adams to warn in The Daily Beast that the Republican Party should be afraid of the PAC’s potential. But many people believe these kinds of super PACs are ruining politics, by making candidates bow to the influence of wealth rather than serve a ballot-based democracy. And some research suggests James’s work reaching black communities on behalf of Ready for Hillary could be ironically self-defeating. Last year, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that black and Latino voters were more likely than whites to feel discouraged from voting due to the expanding role of super PACs. If the Supreme Court uses the McCutcheon case to allow further erosion of campaign finance laws, the trend Brennan identified could intensify for voters and candidates of color, as George Washington University campaign finance law professor Spencer Overton told me. It could also worsen income inequality, as Stanford University political science professor Adam Bonica argued in a recent report. 

James, however, argues these concerns overlook the potential upsides–and the new realities of politics. Asked about the Supreme Court’s deliberation in McCutcheon v. the FEC, James said, "While for many people in the progressive community, it raises flags, we think the voices of the grassroots will not be silenced by Big Money." He argues that "grassroots" does not exclude financial donors and, in fact, he believes "there is potential for a grassroots movement within the super PAC structure." Most of Ready for Hillary’s donors have contributed minor sums–97 percent have given under $100; 76 percent under $25. The PAC is not accepting donations over $25,000. It’s similar to the small-donor strategy executed by Barack Obama in his first presidential run. 

James is not alone in jumping ship from civil rights to more partisan fundraising. The departing NAACP president Ben Jealous was reported in USA Today to be moving "toward raising money for a fund to promote black participation in politics." Jealous, in fact, appears in the press release for James’s announcement, saying, "Quentin understands both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I am absolutely confident that he will be successful in his new role."

James may be emblematic of a gear shift in the build-up to the 2016 presidential elections. His individual trajectory begs a larger, uncomfortable question: Is a shifting emphasis from non-partisan, get-out-the-vote work to proudly partisan, get-out-the-wallets political action inevitable in the post-Citizens United era, in which corporations and shadow-money groups can spend without restriction on political ads? Voting rights and civil rights advocates hope the Court doesn’t continue with McCutcheon what it started with Citizens United, but people like James are preparing for a society in which an increased share of the electorate may need to include financial donations in their understanding of civic engagement–if not as a replacement for traditional door-knocking and GOTV efforts, then as a crucial supplement.

Black Support for Clinton?

James certainly has credentials in more traditional civic work. He’s been a political organizer since he was 16, when he became president of the local NAACP’s youth council in Greenville, S.C., where he grew up. He went on to start NAACP chapters at his first college, Furman University, and at Clemson University, where he organized students in response to the blackface party scandal in 2007. 

James also worked for the Obama campaigns, even during the primaries of his first run, when Obama was a newcomer and many black American leaders had already thrown their support behind Hillary Clinton, including civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis

Rep. Lewis eventually shifted his support to Obama. But looking ahead to 2016, Lewis is once again out front for Clinton. On the Ready For Hillary website, Lewis is quoted saying, "If [Hillary] makes a decision to run I would be with her. I think today she is the most qualified person in America to be president. No one has worked so hard or done a more effective job in representing this country as secretary of state in modern times."

But will the rest of black America buy in to Clinton? James said there is already "a lot of support among wealthy African Americans" for her. "We’re making sure that they are a part of the conversation around donor participation," said James.

Black participation in general in the last two presidential elections are a reason for excitement, said James, pointing out how the voting rate among African Americans exceeded that of white voters for the first time ever. "The question now is can we sustain that black turnout," said James. One indication of how much black people are truly ready for another Clinton era may well be determined in dollars.