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'Rage-donating' still isn't doing Democrats any favors

In 2020, donors invested millions in campaigns that stood little chance of success. In 2022, contributors may repeat the mistakes.


Years ago, I knew a guy who gambled far too much, and was especially fond of betting on sporting events. His hobby was never my cup of tea, but I remember a lesson he told me about how he approached his wagers: "It's important to remove emotion from the equation."

The gambler had his personal favorites — teams he rooted for, hometown players he liked, etc. — but he understood that there's a difference between watching sports as a fan and looking at the same games while putting money on the line.

Smart money has to be colder and more calculated. Placing bets based on which teams a fan likes — or conversely, which teams a fan hates — is an easy way to lose money.

This came to mind yesterday when I saw an Associated Press report that took note of some recent fundraising totals. In Georgia's 14th congressional district, for example, incumbent Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene continues to raise plenty of money for her re-election campaign, but she's actually been outraised by her Democratic rival, Marcus Flowers.

In fact, as of a few months ago, Flowers, a first-time candidate, had raised more campaign funds than any non-incumbent House candidate in the nation.

To be sure, upsets happen, and political prognostications sometimes prove wrong, but by all appearances, Flowers is a major underdog. Georgia's 14th is one of the reddest red districts in the United States. Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in this district by more than 48 points. Locals elected Taylor Greene — one of Congress' most extreme right-wing members in recent history — for a reason.

And yet, her Democratic challenger is raising quite a bit of money, despite overwhelming odds, probably because Taylor Greene has so many detractors who are eager to see her lose. These donors probably aren't thinking about partisan voter indexes and recent electoral history; they're thinking about trying to help replace a radical lawmaker.

It's akin to gamblers placing bets based on their preferred outcomes — without regard for the odds.

In his latest New York Times podcast, Ezra Klein had an interesting conversation with Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, which recruits and supports young, progressive candidates who want to run for office. She touched on this dynamic as part of a larger conversation:

"...I don't want to fault anyone for giving to the thing that inspires them. Donate where you feel like you can make the most good. But I do think there's a clear failure to match goals and actions. If your goal is to win and build sustainable power, throwing $90 million at Amy McGrath for Senate just because she's taking on Mitch McConnell is not the way to do that. It just isn't. And that is where things, I think, get a little lost in translation."

Over the last year or so, Amy McGrath's Senate candidacy has taken on almost mythical proportions in Democratic circles. The Kentuckian ran a strong-but-unsuccessful congressional campaign in 2018, which led Democratic officials to recruit her to take on Mitch McConnell in 2020.

The Republican's critics — of which there are many nationwide — could barely contain their generosity toward McGrath, who ended up raising $88 million.

She nevertheless lost by about 20 points. In fact, McConnell has run seven Senate campaigns in Kentucky, and McGrath — who didn't quite reach 40 percent of the vote — fared worse than nearly all of her predecessors.

This wasn't McGrath's fault. She ran as good a campaign as possible in an increasingly red state against a powerful incumbent who shared a ballot with Trump. McGrath didn't win this race because she couldn't win this race.

But the folks who threw $88 million at her campaign apparently didn't know that. These contributors never spoke to the gambler I knew who said, "It's important to remove emotion from the equation." In fact, they reached the opposite conclusion: They detested McConnell; they wanted to see him lose; so they reached for their wallets to boost the Republican's opponent.

The chances of success were irrelevant. The fact that there were plenty of other, more competitive, likeminded candidates they could've donated to was an important detail they simply overlooked.

Writing for The Atlantic a couple of years ago, Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts, described the phenomenon as "rage-donating." From his piece:

Online giving, large and small, suffers from a problem of discipline. Rather than stopping and thinking and planning a strategy — which candidate or organization would make the best use of my money? — many online donors are just acting expressively. They see an inspiring video, and they click Donate. They see a good politician take down a bad politician in a debate or in a congressional hearing, and they click Donate. They mourn the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and they click Donate. Sometimes this money goes to a great campaign or organization that will use it well. Other times, not so much.

In 2020, this became a noticeable problem for donors who invested millions in campaigns that stood little chance of success. There's already some preliminary evidence that contributors will repeat the mistakes in 2022.