Buying Power: Women and Political Donations

If every woman who voted in the past midterm election would give $27 to any presidential candidate, we’d pour $1.3 billion into politics. But we haven’t…yet. Why, and what might happen if we did?

By Melinda Henneberger

Sheila Cohen and her friend Julie Fagan are sipping coffee on Cohen’s screened-in back porch in Madison, Wisconsin, kicking around whether they want to try to repeat their over-the-top success as first-time political fund-raisers. In the world of campaign finance, what they accomplished during the 2004 presidential race — raising $143,000 for John Kerry in just two months — was so unexpected that this is a little like having won the U.S. Open the first season you picked up a tennis racket and then mulling over whether you want to keep playing.

Fagan, 53, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine and women’s health, describes herself as a "cheap and frugal" person who had never donated to a presidential candidate. Cohen, 68, a freelance writer, had mainly volunteered for such uninspiring tasks as looking up ZIP codes and sealing envelopes. As they grew more passionate about the election, however, they and seven friends met at Cohen’s house to discuss getting involved on the money end, where campaigns are won and lost. (In 406 of the 435 Congressional races in 2006, the winners were the candidates who outspent the competition.) "Sheila had wonderful food, like she always does," Fagan remembers, eyeing the cookies that are today’s temptation. "We sat around in the family room, brainstorming. You’d like to think that voting is enough, but it isn’t."

The straight-to-the-gut fund-raising pitch that Cohen, Fagan, and seven of their friends came up with that first night was: "What’s more important to you in the long run: $1,000 or four more years of George Bush?" It worked so well that "I got mostly yeses and almost no push-back," says Fagan, an intent woman who speaks with such conviction that her dangling earrings dance. "I’ve run school auctions and had to work harder for $30." Despite losing the election, Kerry did win Wisconsin. "We were hoping that the election would be the real reward" for donors, Fagan says with a sigh. But she and Cohen insist it is not the electoral loss that’s making them so hesitant about raising money again for 2008: "I hate asking for money," Fagan says. "I hate asking my friends … I hate to impose my views." So while their accomplishment shows the impact women can have when they do get involved, their ambivalence just as clearly explains why more of us don’t.

Shutting Ourselves Out

After the 2004 election, I spent 18 months traveling across the country, listening to women of all ages, races, tax brackets, and points of view talk about their political lives for my book If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear. In 20 states, red and blue, women spoke of feeling alienated from both parties, in no small measure because of the outsize role money plays in deciding elections and dictating priorities. As Cohen puts it: "I’m disappointed that money equals power." Anne Marie Scibelli, 40, a Republican stay-home mom in Los Angeles, says some women see political donations as a complete waste: "Women feel passionate about issues, but we’re practical. If there’s money left over and the woman is writing the check, you can be sure it’s not going to the RNC."

Yet there is a chicken-and-egg aspect to this alienation when it causes us to limit our own participation in the political process. Money does buy access to candidates and elected officials, period — because it’s donors who are invited to spend time with them at receptions and breakfasts, barbecues and home parties. At the $100 level, you might get a hot dog and a hearty handclasp; for $1,000, an invitation to schmooze over cocktails. For a five-figure gift, woe unto the event organizer who does not deliver the candidate for some serious listening, bonding, and off-the-record candor. To remain competitive, members of Congress now routinely spend their lunch hours dialing for dollars at party headquarters. And year in and year out, their evening and weekend schedules are dominated by fund-raising events. It’s crass, yes, but in politics, you can buy friends.

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