Buying Campaign Contributions as a Hack
The first Republican primary debate has a popularity threshold to determine who gets to appear: 40,000 individual contributors. Now there are a lot of conventional ways a candidate can get that many contributors. Doug Burgum came up with a novel idea: buy them:
A long-shot contender at the bottom of recent polls, Mr. Burgum is offering $20 gift cards to the first 50,000 people who donate at least $1 to his campaign. And one lucky donor, as his campaign advertised on Facebook, will have the chance to win a Yeti Tundra 45 cooler that typically costs more than $300—just for donating at least $1.
It’s actually a pretty good idea. He could have spent the money on direct mail, or personalized social media ads, or television ads. Instead, he buys gift cards at maybe two-thirds of face value (sellers calculate the advertising value, the additional revenue that comes from using them to buy something more expensive, and breakage when they’re not redeemed at all), and resells them. Plus, many contributors probably give him more than $1, and he got a lot of publicity over this.
Probably the cheapest way to get the contributors he needs. A clever hack.
EDITED TO ADD (7/16): These might be “straw donors” and illegal:
The campaign’s donations-for-cash strategy could raise potential legal concerns, said Paul Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer. Voters who make donations in exchange for gift cards, he said, might be considered straw donors because part or all of their donations are being reimbursed by the campaign.
“Federal law says ‘no person shall make a contribution in the name of another person,'” Mr. Ryan said. “Here, the candidate is making a contribution to himself in the name of all these individual donors.”
Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in election law, said that typically, campaigns ask the Federal Election Commission when engaging in new forms of donations.
The Burgum campaign’s maneuver, he said, “certainly seems novel” and “raises concerns about whether it violates the prohibition on straw donations.”
Something for the courts to figure out, if this matter ever gets that far.