'Walking-Around Money': How Machine Politics Works in America Today

The practice of handing over cash to turn out votes used to be an urban Democratic specialty. Are rural Republicans getting in on the fun?

Allegations about the relationship between Kent Sorenson (left) and Michele Bachmann -- seen campaigning in 2011 -- show a new campaign-finance worry. (Reuters)

Last month, Rep. Michele Bachmann announced her decision not to seek a fifth term amid an array of ethics charges, one of which is an allegation that she secretly paid Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson for his support during her abortive presidential bid. According to NBC, Bachmann's former chief of staff, Andy Parrish, swore in an affidavit to the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee that Bachmann "knew of and approved" a scheme to funnel $7,500 per month to Sorenson through an allied consulting firm in exchange for his backing, despite Iowa Senate ethics rules barring lawmakers from receiving presidential campaign payments. In his affidavit, Parrish called Bachmann an "outstanding public servant," suggesting he had no axe to grind. Sorenson flatly denies any violation of ethics rules, and says he received money only to cover expenses. While gleeful liberals and dismayed Tea Partiers have mostly overlooked the charge in the wake of her announcement, it may be an important harbinger of future election cycles.

To understand why, you have to start with turn-of-the-century urban machine politics. Early get-out-the-vote (GOTV) systems relied on money changing hands through employment: Party bosses, generally divided by ethnicity, rounded up votes from ethnic neighborhoods in exchange for control over the abundant patronage positions available in rapidly-growing cities. At first the practice was confined to European immigrant populations, but African American voters were gradually included. In Chicago, for instance, blacks were gradually incorporated into the machine by powerbrokers like the late Rep. William Dawson, and were offered municipal positions like the one held by Fraser Robinson III, a pump worker at the city's water plant (and Michelle Obama's father).

Many American cities have a storied tradition of machine politics. But in recent decades, party electioneering has evolved into arrangements whereby candidates and parties pay people small amounts of cash in exchange for GOTV efforts like canvassing. When I represented an inner-city St. Louis state Senate district, I was often approached by operatives proposing such arrangements. That's not strictly illegal, but it creates a lot of untraceable campaign cash, and it's vulnerable to corruption. (Although I declined, I did run afoul of federal campaign-finance law during my 2004 U.S. House race: I approved coordination between two aides and an outside party who created a flier about my opponent's legislative attendance record. I then lied when asked about it, earning me eight months in federal prison for obstruction of justice.) I know people who have disbursed several hundred thousand dollars on Election Day. In some cases, the process is blunter, not to mention illegal: Low-level operatives simply distribute cash in even smaller increments to individual voters.

In St. Louis, local powerbrokers often steered "street money" through a trusted ally or relative -- and, according to scuttlebutt, siphoned off a chunk for themselves. Sometimes a powerbroker will even dole out money to low-level party functionaries himself. In 2004, John Kerry reportedly dropped hundreds of thousands on the street in Philadelphia alone, though ultimately the Republicans' all-volunteer ground game was widely seen as superior -- and Kerry lost.

Compared to the old-style machine politics in which loyal constituencies earned municipal jobs, voting blocs in the new street-money game derive small, ephemeral benefits while local kingpins often pocket substantial gains. In this way, the game merely reflects broader economic trends of stratification.

It's often observed that urban America is in the vanguard of cultural trends from music and language to fashion. Bachmann's alleged payments to Sorenson suggest that in 2012, street money -- like other trends -- belatedly reached the rural Republican heartland. According to Bachmann's former top lieutenant, Republicans simply spiffed up and formalized the arrangements by funneling money through third-party firms.

Democratic street operatives sometimes do things sloppily. They pay people off the books, perhaps through preachers and unvetted cronies of leading political players, who themselves often use unverifiable methods for the grunt work of dropping literature in barbershops or on car windshields in church parking lots. Clergymen sometimes accept contributions to the church or related entities in exchange for offering their pulpit to candidates. Local bigwigs (perhaps a veteran congressman or powerful state legislator) promote allied operatives to well-funded statewide or national campaigns, often implying that if their allies aren't used, they will back a different primary candidate or sit on their hands in a general election. The chief operative's crew of workers takes its pay in cash, but some money often ends up with the powerbroker's pockets -- a sort of "referral fee."

Street operatives or low-level elected officials will often support whoever pays them -- indeed, some will defect from their chosen candidate for a payday. They maintain that they are providing a strategic communication service not unlike that provided by a direct mail or media consultant, arguing that skeptical urban voters are more apt to vote for candidates based on word of mouth than the slick, professionally produced television ads. Republicans like Kent Sorenson, conversely, tend to do things neatly. They consult lawyers (or are lawyers themselves) to ensure that their plots are technically legal. They incorporate as LLCs and get paid via check. As conservative political or religious leaders, they couch their endorsements in the fine cloth of ideology, character, and family. And like the local urban powerbrokers steering the street money game, they can be richly compensated, as the alleged Sorenson payday suggests.

Street money has been largely neglected by reporters, who find it easier to deal with media consultants than shadowy operatives -- and easier to comb quarterly Federal Election Commission reports than inner-city alleys. But the Bachmann allegations should alert journalists to the institutionalization of these arrangements, in both parties, and bring them from the shadows into the light.

The Obama campaigns -- with Obama's unique profile as the first black presidential nominee -- pushed to cleanse the Democratic Party of "walking-around money" in 2008 and 2012. The

Obama braintrust believed that blacks, who historically vote at a lower rate than whites, would be sufficiently motivated to vote in 2008 by Obama's history-making campaign, and in 2012 by the desire to defend the president against right-wing attacks. Put simply, according to one former Obama field general, they didn't think black people should have to be paid to turn black people out to vote for the first black president. Moreover, the Obama ethos was all about metrics: Measure everything, test everything, and fine-tune methods for optimization. The street-money game's undisclosed payments, unverifiable operations, and unrecorded data completely violated that.

The approach led to friction with indignant ground-level operators. "It's our tradition. You don't come to someone's house and change the rules of someone's house. That's just respect," one

Philadelphia ward leader told the Los Angeles Times. Another said she couldn't ask organizers to work as unpaid volunteers for the Obama campaign: "There are a lot of poor people here."

But despite the backlash, Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and generated then-record black turnout on the way to a rout of John McCain in the general election. (Obama would break his own record in 2012 when, for the first time in history, black turnout exceeded white turnout rates.) If Obama's strategists thought that his presence in the White House would have a similar impact in the 2010 midterm, as the president infamously promised then-Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry, they received a rude awakening when minority turnout plummeted and Republicans swept the U.S. House, flummoxing Obama for much of the following two years.

Given that experience, it's reasonable to expect Democrats to return to the street-money regime in 2014, as operatives grapple with the difficulty of replicating the Obama's turnout operation without additional funds for ground-level efforts. And 2016 may see presidential primary candidates of both parties using similar arrangements -- Democrats greasing urban minority turnout via street players, Republicans courting Tea Party and Christian conservative constituencies through consulting contracts with prominent leaders. A raft of white Democrats will vie for the black votes that helped push Obama to the nomination and ultimately the presidency, and may well resort to walking-around money distributed through preachers and local politicos.

Meanwhile, Republicans may see the blossoming of arrangements like what's alleged against Sorenson, glorified-street money arrangements, especially in early-voting states like Iowa where a state legislative endorsement can deliver an 100 extra votes and victory in a small county. In a Politico-soaked era of local officials who fancy themselves presidential-level operatives, a deluge of low-level politicians will likely hang out shingles as "consultants," a phenomenon national Democrats glimpsed during the 2008 South Carolina primary. Well-funded candidates from both parties will be sorely tempted to make these payments, which in an age of media saturation and fragmentation might just yield more votes per dollar than yet another television ad.

Journalists cover the business of politics effectively when it comes to lobbyists contributing to and then extracting favors from legislators. They are less adept at covering the business of politics when it comes to candidates and campaign vendors. In order to improve at the latter and uncover deceptive practices, journalists should compare quarterly presidential and (flush) U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaign filings with the personal financial disclosures local elected officials are required to file in many states. By identifying the sources of legislators' personal income, journalists can follow the money trail and expose legislators who are using their position for personal profit.

Though the timing of required filings will make it difficult for journalists to publicize findings until after the campaign, exposure should discourage the practice. And since the FEC and most state ethics commissions lack the funding or teeth to adequately shed light on these practices, journalists must fill the void. And remember, what they don't find could be the most valuable, since politicians who fail to disclose income would be violating tax laws.

What journalists shouldn't do is limit their investigation to the traditional street-money venues. For as the alleged Sorenson episode suggests, Republican leaders who have long derided urban GOTV tactics as the nefarious underbelly of politics may be as venal as the Democratic powerbrokers who treat elections as paydays.