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Conservatives and Fundraising: A Psychoanalysis

If you read enough coverage like today’s Politico piece on how much conservative groups plan to spend in 2012, you quickly realize the Obama campaign faces a deep psychological problem in addition to a financial one. The Politico headline is that outside groups will spend $1 billion on top of the billion or so Mitt Romney and the RNC will have at their disposal. But the more interesting revelation is that conservatives are perfectly comfortable talking about the amount of money they’re deploying—they’re prone to overstating it if anything—while liberals are deeply uncomfortable talking about such sums and prone to understating them. 

The reasons for this are both philosophical and practical. Conservatives think spending money to influence elections isn’t just legitimate but honorable. If you’ve made a lot of money yourself, it’s a reflection of your moral status. Spending part of your fortune to defend the economic system that helped you make it is therefore entirely just. 

Conservatives also argue that the ability to attract big donors is a reflection of a candidate’s worth—after all, it means morally worthy people are investing in his or her cause. In general, when a candidate raises a lot of money, rich conservatives are more inclined to give that candidate money. That’s both because the candidate has become worthier in their eyes, and because the candidate with more money tends to win. Since it pays to have friends in power, donating to a candidate who’s already raised a lot of money is a solid investment.

Liberals, on the other hand, think spending large amounts of money to influence elections is dishonorable, since it’s fundamentally anti-democratic, at least in the sense that we think of democracy as one-man/one-vote. Moreover, wealthy liberals are far less likely to think of the money they’ve made as a reflection of moral status, and far more likely to emphasize the role of luck, circumstance, and social and economic infrastructure (public schools, government R&D, subsidized health care, etc.). That doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to translate their wealth into political power, but they’re certainly more sheepish about it. 

When liberals see a candidate who’s raised lots of money from a small klatch of donors, they don’t see him or her as especially worthy, but as someone who’s figured out how to game the system. In general, when a candidate raises a lot of money, wealthy liberals are less inclined to give, at least in large amounts. They didn’t want to give so much in the first place, and it suddenly feels less urgent.  

That, in a nutshell, is why you see operatives on the right crowing to Politico about the gobs of cash they’re stockpiling, while anytime someone so much as hints that Obama and the Democrats may raise $1 billion (which would be roughly half what Republicans are supposedly spending), David Axelrod, Jim Messina, and the rest of the Obama brass quickly dismiss the idea as preposterous. 

Given what I’ve argued about liberals, they’re entirely right to do that. It reflects the reality that rich Republicans are simply much, much happier to pony up than their counterparts on the left—all the more so when a candidate is already raising ungodly sums—and that the current campaign finance system lets them do it pretty seamlessly. 

P.S. Obviously I'm generalizing here--there are clearly exceptions on both sides of the aisle. But I think the analysis holds up pretty well because it's part of what makes someone a conservative or a liberal. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber