Politics & Policy

Moving On from MoveOn.org

The liberal group’s PAC is on pace to have its worst cycle since its founding.

The fundraising messages from MoveOn.org’s political-action fund are taking an increasingly pessimistic and frantic tone. A recent message declared, “If we can’t increase our budget, we’re going to have to pull the plug now on some absolutely crucial campaigns.”

Oftentimes, fundraising specialists encourage messages with a dire tone to promote a sense of urgency, to spur donors who might otherwise shrug off yet another request for money. But in MoveOn.org’s case, it isn’t likely that the warning is a pose, as the organization’s political-action fund is on pace to have its worst year since it was formed during the 2004 election cycle.

According to documents filed with the FEC, MoveOn.org Political Action raised $9.1 million in contributions from January 2011 to March 31, 2012. In that same period, the group spent $10.5 million, and it has $2.75 million left in cash on hand. With just under five months until Election Day, and additional fundraising efforts ongoing, those totals are certain to increase.

Still, it is a dramatic drop from last cycle and all the preceding cycles except one. By March 31 in the 2010 cycle, MoveOn.org Political Action had raised $18.5 million; by that date in the 2008 cycle, $14 million; in the 2006 cycle, $11.8 million; and in the 2004 cycle, $2.79 million — but that was in the first 15 months of the PAC’s existence.

#ad#The group would need to have a surge in new donations to keep pace with past cycles, never mind past presidential cycles:

• In 2009–2010, MoveOn’s PAC raised and spent $29 million.

• In 2007–2008, it raised $39 million and spent $38 million.

• In 2005–2006, it raised $27.6 million and spent $28.1 million.

• In 2003–2004, it raised $31.8 million and spent $30 million.

Two weeks ago, on May 30, the group e-mailed its members:

Here are some examples of the important projects we’d love to run in 2012 if we had enough money:

Young voter turnout. Young voters were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008, but most elections experts say it’s unlikely they’ll vote again in similar numbers this time around. We learned how to register and turn out young voters last time, and we need to do it again.

Elect Elizabeth Warren and keep control of the U.S. Senate. Elizabeth Warren is one of the best progressive candidates we’ve seen in years. When control of the Senate could be decided on her race, how could we not help her win?

Fighting voter suppression. Republicans have passed a wave of laws aimed at making it harder to vote for African Americans, students, and poor people. If turnout goes down by even a couple percentage points among these key voting blocs, that could be disastrous. 

MoveOn will do a little bit on all of these projects, but will we be able to go big? That’s mostly a question of resources. If we have enough money, we will. If not, we simply can’t.

There are several factors that could be contributing to the slowdown in donations: continued economic hard times squeezing the wallets of the donor base; a relentless fundraising effort by the Obama campaign vacuuming up funds that might otherwise go to groups like MoveOn.org; the rise of SuperPACs as new competitors for donations among the politically minded.

(MoveOn.org did not respond to questions for this article submitted through its contact page one week ago.)

But some may wonder if MoveOn.org continues to provide bang for the buck. The group put a great deal of effort into the Illinois 10th District Democratic primary in March, backing a 25-year-old community organizer, Ilya Sheyman, against businessman Brad Schneider. This contest was personal for the organization: Sheyman was its mobilization director from June 2009 to February 2011.

#page#According to the Huffington Post, MoveOn joined with the Communications Workers of America and USAction to create an independent expenditure arm that spent roughly $100,000 on the race, and the name “Sheyman” appears in the MoveOn.org FEC filing 6,987 times, with the vast majority of those donations being sent to MoveOn.org but earmarked for the candidate, mostly modest two- and three-figure sums. The group donated the legal maximum of $5,000 to Sheyman’s campaign, and touted the fact that the district reportedly is home to 15,000 MoveOn members.

But Schneider won by eight percentage points, and Sheyman garnered only 12,688 votes.

The day-to-day operations of MoveOn.org require a steady stream of donations; overhead eats up a considerable amount of the organization’s general donations. The most recent FEC filing lists $59,637.37 in bank charges to Wells Fargo Bank and $24,242.22 for legal services to the firm of Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb, PC. (Curiously, the organization lists a $916.28 expenditure made February 17 to “Men’s Warehouse,” with the expenditure listed as “media production.”)

#ad#The group spent $3,000 on a survey by Public Policy Polling to show that the public wants the president to get tougher with Wall Street banks, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee covered a portion of the costs of three PPP surveys in the Sheyman race. Unfortunately for them, Tom Jensen of PPP called the surveys in this race “one of our worst misses ever” — the surveys showed Sheyman with a steadily increasing lead — and Jensen publicly apologized to MoveOn.org for being so far off.

And perhaps some of the ideas being tossed around in this cycle are too unorthodox to attract donations. On June 1, the group sent out this message:

Dear MoveOn member,

We just launched 99airlines, our program to fly airplane banners over high-profile Mitt Romney events with messages from the 99%.

And what’s the coolest part? You get to decide what the banners say! If you could fly a message over Mitt Romney’s head, what would it be?

Will you suggest a short, pithy, memorable phrase for a 99airlines banner? Or check out and rate other people’s ideas?

Click here to submit or vote for a 99airlines banner.

Imagine if Mitt Romney and his Super PAC friends had to deal with the sights and sounds of airplanes following them everywhere, reminding Americans how Romney stands for corporations and the 1%. Reporters at the events will film and write about the banners — it’ll drive Romney and his corporate backers crazy.

That’s why we’re taking it to Romney, exposing him as Mr. 1%. Here’s the banner we flew over a Romney fundraiser in Boston last week. [It reads: ROMNEY AND BAIN: 1% GAIN FROM 99%’S PAIN.]

Airplane banners are obviously visible, but . . . do they move votes? MoveOn ran banners at two Romney events, with modest coverage and little or no sign that “Romney and his corporate backers” have been driven crazy.

A recent message from MoveOn to its members emphasized that the outlook for the presidential race is ominous. On June 6, the group wrote:

Think Obama’s a shoo-in? 

Think again. Romney is ahead in a whole series of recent polls. And super PACs are poised to spend huge amounts of money to sway the race — just like they did yesterday in Wisconsin.

The good news is that in this election the Internet is giving us whole new ways to fight back at a fraction of the cost of a traditional ad campaign.

Operating at a fraction of the cost of traditional ad campaigns may be a necessity when your donations are a fraction of what they were in previous years.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.

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