Iowa and Democratic Funders’ Delusions

Iowa’s App-pocalyse was typical of a system that squanders resources on actors far from the action. There’s a better way to spend that money.

By Lara Putnam

Local volunteers work their hearts out for democracy, only to be undercut by well-paid consultants flatly ignorant of how things work on the ground. Yes, I am talking about the Iowa caucuses. But I am also talking about a dynamic that has been misallocating resources and kneecapping grassroots effort for years.

Democratic funders keep pouring money into the hands of a handful of leaders who claim to have the fix for local processes they don’t understand well enough to diagnose—much less to “solve.”

Sarah Taber coined the phrase Sugar Daddy Science to describe how “the pursuit of money from wealthy donors distorts the research process—and yields flashy projects that don’t help and don’t work.” She used the example of MIT Media Lab, which took money from funders like Jeffrey Epstein and produced projects that looked cutting-edge only to funders’ ambitious and ignorant eyes: like a “food computer” that anyone with agricultural experience recognized as poorly rigged outdated hydroponics. With no accountability to the people doing the work in the real world, big money from afar systematically generates not just ethical quandaries, but useless results.

You could say something similar about the convergence of grift, hubris, and insider networks that misallocates funds within the Democratic ecosystem. Call it Sugar Daddy Dem Tech.

In Iowa this week, thousands of local volunteers ran precincts well, carrying their fellow citizens through registration, initial preference vote, and the calculus of a threshold of viability—and then facilitated genuine conversations to persuade voters whose first candidates didn’t meet the threshold to choose a viable alternate, or fuse with another almost-there to carry them to viability.

I got real-time text updates about that process from two of my children, volunteering in very different precincts south of Des Moines: one urban and diverse; one upscale and white. The former ended up with delegates allocated as Sanders 4, Buttigieg 3, Warren 2; the latter Buttigieg 5, Warren 2, Biden 2, and Klobuchar 2. For all their differences, in each the human process was genuinely inspiring—not just the process in the gym halls on caucus night, but throughout the campaigns’ volunteer recruitment, conversations with voters, and careful work with precinct captains in advance.

And then came the app. Designed by software start-up Shadow, it is linked to the pro-Democratic PAC Acronym, which has drawn massive investments from Democrats’ big donor core with the promise to do Big Tech right, from digital ads to data collection, ground game, and beyond. But their Iowa reporting app was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, sold for (reportedly) $60,000 to a state party that could have gone low-tech and low-risk with things like extra phone lines instead.

Dems’ Sugar Daddy problem is not just about tech—it’s a pull that continually channels funds into the hands of high-profile actors who claim to hold the keys to “grassroots engagement.” These high-profile leaders invariably live in coastal metropoles: that’s where they made the connections that made them visible and persuasive to these funders in the first place. Unfortunately, their vision of political practice is as distorted as that of everyone who sees the American public largely through Twitter, Fox News, and interviews-from-diners.

There is a better way to spend money: Support local campaigns from school board to town council, including in places no one thinks Democrats can win. Providing seed money for the handful of staff and media it takes to run a bare-bones local campaign unlocks an extraordinary in-kind contribution: volunteer labor by people who actually live in the community and will be there long after the campaign is over, reinvesting the knowledge and connections they build in the campaign.

Paid staff working for national voter registration or voter contacting efforts do nothing of the kind. Some of those campaigns knock doors, read a script, take the data and run. Some pursue an ideological vision disconnected from the voters around them.

In contrast, when you fund a down-ballot campaign, you are providing support to people who are trying to win an election here and now—which forces them to connect with less engaged peers and learn from the conversations. A metric for assessing performance is built in: How many votes did you get? And that metric provides data at a scale participants can use to improve. Precinct-level vote totals offer instant feedback; volunteers can see where they moved the needle and apply those insights to the next campaign.

At the end of the day, some digital infrastructure, including basic tools for communication and data, is essential. But Democratic funders’ current combination of passion and ignorance from afar means too much money gets channeled to a handful of well-connected “innovators” with no metrics or means for accountability.

At best those investments leave little behind. At worst, as in Iowa, they leave a rubble of broken trust that local volunteers will be working to clean up long after the cameras are gone.

Lara Putnam is Professor and Chair in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is active in grassroots political organizing in southwest Pennsylvania.

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