Napster founder Sean Parker has decided to get involved in politics, so, according to Politico, he's hiring people to guide donations to candidates. Bad idea, Sean. When you're rich, you can let the politicians come to you. The rich make it so hard on themselves. All you really need to do to influence politics if you're wealthy is to be wealthy.
Contrast his plan with the rich, trust-fund kids that The New York Times reports got an invite to the White House to meet with senior officials. Have you read that Times Sunday Styles piece yet? In essence the White House invited the young heirs to various fortunes to the White House to try and convince them to apply their inheritances in ways that the Obama administration would appreciate. It was a gathering so exclusive that it was reported illicitly by an heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune. It was so exclusive that one participant's relationship with an Obama cabinet official (Liesel Pritzker Simmons is Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker's first cousin) didn't even bear a mention. Her relationship didn't get her in the door, her money did.
While Parker has certainly had some White House invites, he has to work to build the sort of influence that Pritzker Simmons earned in the cradle. So if you're rich and wanting influence? Here are your options.
Strategy 1: Help people get elected.
Parker got a taste for political influence, Politico's Alexander Burns and Alex Byers write, by investing in races in Virginia last year. He gave $1.6 million, the pair report, including $500,000 to eventual gubernatorial winner Terry McAuliffe. He's given to candidates in California as well, and to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. In order to formalize that, he's hired a former staffer to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and is working with the Messina Group, led by Jim Messina, who ran Obama's 2012 race.
The idea appears to simply be: Find good candidates, help them win.
Why this is a decent strategy. The most important thing to have if you want to influence an elected official is a relationship with that elected official. And there is no better way to build that relationship than to hand the politician a large check. As we've noted before, politicians are more likely to take meetings with donors, giving you a foot-in-the-door that other people don't have.
Done properly, dangling a large pile of money over the heads of candidates can build immediate cachet, as Sheldon Adelson demonstrated last month in Las Vegas. Politicians need money to run for office; offer them money, and they are more likely to tell you what you want to hear.
Why this is a crummy strategy. There are lots of donors, and most politicians understand that donors don't need to hear too much in order to feel as though their investment has been a wise one. Again, take Adelson. He gave millions to Newt Gingrich in 2012, and Gingrich won a single primary. Candidates don't want Adelson, they want his money. They want to win on their terms, not on the donor's — especially since donors don't usually know how to win campaigns.
What's more, surrounding yourself with consultants who want to run TV spots and be paid for their opinions is a good way to spend a lot of money, quickly. There are a lot of political consultants who want to provide good strategic advice and win races. There are also a lot that will happily figure out how to cash monthly checks in perpetuity.
Strategy 2: Build an organization.
What Parker is (reportedly) doing is placing himself at the center of political giving. Contrast that with the Koch brothers who, for all of the attention they've received, have largely created external organizations to shift political power. They created various non-profits to move money around and, most effectively, created Americans for Prosperity, which now vies against the GOP for influence in elections and even plays at the local level.
Why this is a decent strategy. The Kochs, who've spent decades building corporate influence, are similarly building a political institution. It's slow and steady and not the sort of thing that results in public attention. Parker, as befits the guy whose wedding made headlines, wants to make a splash. The Kochs want to change DC.
Why this is a crummy strategy. It is slow, however easy the Kochs make it look. Contrast their work with the iffy launch of FWD.us, the Mark Zuckerberg-backed organization that launched last year to influnce the immigration debate. It continues to do electoral work, launching ads targeting Iowa's anti-immigration Rep. Steve King, but hasn't made much of a dent in the immigration debate so far. In part, that's because of the issue at hand. In part, it's because building power and taking out members of Congress takes a while.
Strategy 3: Run for office.
Among those who've received checks from Parker are Sean Eldridge in New York and Ro Khanna in the Silicon Valley, two tech-affiliated guys of means who have decided they'd like to be in the Congress. (We looked at their races last July.)
Why this is a decent strategy. What better way to influence politics than to be a politician?
Why this is a crummy strategy. And the answer to that is: By not being a member of Congress. Let's say Khanna and Eldridge win. Khanna is replacing a staunchly liberal Democrat; Eldridge, a Republican. That's a net gain of one seat for their party. And they'd join a group of 435 mostly conservative elected officials.
This strategy is a corollary to Parker's idea of donating to candidates: Each feels immediate and entrepreneurial, like buying stock or being promoted to CEO. How could you not make a difference! The answer: Because that's not how it works.
Strategy 4: Call a politician.
Especially because you don't need to do that much to get a politician on the phone. The wealthy are much more likely to contact elected officials, and, as noted above, donors are more likely to get an audience. But I suspect that Sean Parker could schedule a meeting with anyone on the Hill that he desired.
The rich are far more likely to see their electoral will be executed as it is, which is in part because they give more money and have more relationships with elected officials. But we overestimate how hard it is to build those relationships. Those Republican 2016 contenders went to Las Vegas to court Sheldon Adelson hoping to get a check. It's likely that most wealthy individuals could get a meeting just by virtue of their net worths.
Strategy 5: Wait to be called.
Here's a quote from that Times article about the old-money young.
The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
This is the teenage heir to a hotel chain fortune, invited to the White House to talk about important social issues just because he will at some point have money to wield. When you're rich enough, you don't have to write campaign checks and you don't have to ask for meetings. Politicians ask to meet with you.
Sean Parker, take note.