The Rush to Turn Anti-Trump Election Money Into Long-Term Progress

Most political donations go to short-term strategies like TV ads. But these organizers move contributions to grassroots organizing that can have lasting impacts.
Colorado People's Action

Photo courtesy of Colorado People’s Action. 

With less than two weeks to go until the presidential election, many progressives want to contribute money to defeat Trump, boost the number of Democrats in the the House of Representatives, and pave the way for the policies they want to see.

A vast majority of political donations are spent by campaigns on short-term goals like buying TV ads, which do little to build long-term social change. A group of veteran progressive organizers thought that money would have a deeper impact if it went to pay grassroots organizations to do political work with longer-term benefits, such as knocking on doors and getting out the vote. The groups they had in mind are embedded in communities and advocating day in and day out for issues like increasing voter access, raising the minimum wage, and reforming the immigration system. While the Democratic National Committee—which has raised more than $300 million in 2016—is widely criticized for lacking a vision of systemic change, these groups have that vision and know how to mobilize voters, too.

The result was Movement 2016, a platform that provides information to donors large and small to help them maximize the long-term social change impact of their political contributions. So far, Movement 2016 has steered more than $2.3 million dollars to organizations concentrated in 16 battleground states. Its goal is to raise $3 million by Nov. 8.

That’s a tiny fraction of the total cost of this year’s elections, which the Center for Responsive Politics says will exceed $6 billion. But Howard Watts, the director of operations at Movement 2016, says the money will help grassroots teams develop leadership and engage with elected officials in ways that will have effects for years.

The platform’s immediate goal, says Watts, is to register and mobilize new voters, young voters, and people of color in time for Election Day.

Movement 2016 is a project of Gamechanger Networks, a political organization that has built other get-out-the-vote groups in the past. Gamechanger is known for creative thinking. Its VOTE MOB, for example, encourages people to vote through flash mobs, public art, and bar crawls.

Founder Billy Wimsatt has been a leader in the progressive community for nearly 20 years and helped direct organizations like the League of Young Voters and Rebuild the Dream.

How Movement 2016 helps

Lizeth Chacon is executive director of Colorado People’s Action—a Latina-led affiliate of the national progressive coalition called People’s Action. Chacon said Movement 2016 has been instrumental in helping her team launch a robust canvassing program aimed at defeating Trump and electing a progressive candidate, Morgan Carroll, in a tight congressional race.

Movement 2016 has directed $25,000 to Colorado People’s Action. Chacon says that funding allowed her group to knock on 4,000 doors so far, and they plan to knock on 10,000 more by election day, as well as send mail to 14,000 households.

But the support also helped her establish Colorado People’s Action in the first place.

Previously, she had founded a separate group, Colorado People’s Alliance. Like their names, the two groups have similar missions, but there’s one big difference. Colorado People’s Alliance is a 501(c)3, a status that prevents it from supporting or opposing specific candidates. Colorado People’s Action, meanwhile, is a 501(c)4, and is free to lobby for candidates like Morgan Carroll. Donors to Movement 2016 can choose between the two types of organizations when giving money. 

Movement 2016 encourages nonprofit groups that want to defeat Trump to open 501(c)4s because “those are the groups that can engage directly on elections,” Watts says, and that helps them raise funds during an election year. With the clock ticking until Nov. 8, Watts says his main focus right now is to leverage interest in the election to raise awareness about Movement 2016 and get money to groups for knocking on doors, mailing letters, and making phone calls.

In Florida, Movement 2016 directed more than $250,000 to an alliance of key community organizations that plan to knock on over 550,000 doors this year. And the work doesn’t stop there. Over the next four years, the coalition plans to train about 5,000 local leaders to advocate for changing the state’s felon disenfranchisement law, which keeps about 1.7 million residents—more than 10 percent of the voting-age population—from the polls.

This kind of community-based legwork is what gets new voters out, said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, professor of education and political science at University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Latino Politics.

According to Bedolla, television and radio ads don’t do that, begging the question: Why doesn’t the Democratic party focus less on ads and more on practices that do mobilize new voters—particularly in communities of color—who’ll likely support their candidates?

They don’t need to, said Bedolla. The purpose of running ads is to change the vote of the 2 to 3 percent of people who are on the fence. “If you’re a politician, all you need is 50.1 percent of the total vote to win.”

Political parties don’t need to invest in mobilizing the entire electorate, Bedolla said, so that investment is most likely to come from the nonprofit sector.