College Republicans: A $4.7M Direct Mail Scam
by Mike Connery, Tue Sep 30, 2008 at 11:39:07 AM EDT
Cross posted from Future Majority - a blog about progressive youth politics.
I thought I'd weigh-in on a public battle between B. Lee Drake of the College Democrats and the College Republican National Committee. Last week, Drake posted an op-ed accusing the CRNC of being nothing more than an ineffectual slush fund for the Republican Party:
I don't know about you, but there is a poverty hidden by the seven-figure sums of the CNR budget. Look around you on campus today, and you see students registering each other to vote in record numbers. Of all the groups doing this, the College Republicans of UNM have yet to participate. So long as the organization is treated as a slush fund, they rob themselves of the ability to gather younger recruits and participate in the growth of youth activism. Beyond what speakers or events that student groups host, our most important activity is undoubtedly registering students to vote in the rush to the Oct. 7 deadline. We've even established early voting in the SUB that will last from Oct. 18 to Nov. 1. But the College Republicans have long ago stepped out of that volunteerism and instead sold themselves out to campaign contribution leftovers.
The College Republicans rebutted with an op-ed by Ashley Barbera, in which she pointed out the paucity of funds available to College Democrats due to their status as an appendage of the DNC, and contrasted that to what the CRNC is able to accomplish with their larger budget.
I won't argue with the first part of Barbera's piece. I've written at length about how the College Democrats are financially disadvantaged by remaining within the DNC. And I don't think Drake is right in saying that the CRNC is a slush fund for the Republican Party. However, the College Republican's budget requires much closer scrutiny, as do Barbera's claims.
Barbera touts the CRNC's fundraising prowess, and notes that
Our money comes from a national network of 110,000 supporters, mostly small-dollar donors, who recognize the importance of reaching out to young voters.
According to Open Secrets, the College Republican National Committee has raised $4.7 million this cycle. Of that money, a full 73% - $3.2 million - went back into fundraising. What's going on here? Well looking into the expenditures it becomes clear:
$3.2 million to Infocision Management, a Republican direct mail and telemarketing firm. The College Republicans aren't a slush fund, but they aren't a mega-funded super org either. They're an incredibly inefficient direct mail and telemarketing operation that spends 75 cents for every dollar it raises. And this money does not come, as Barbera suggests, from 110,000 small donors who "understand the need to reach out to young voters." As this article in the Seattle Times makes clear, the vast majority of donors who give to the CRNC have no idea they are giving money to the college Republicans. They are elderly men and women, tricked into giving by dishonest telemarketing and direct mail scams. In the last three electoral cycles, the number one employment category of individual donors to the CRNC is "retired."
Looking further into the CRNC's 2008 expenditures, almost 1/4 of a million dollars goes to consultants - almost as much as the $373k the organization paid to its employees. The College Republicans aren't a $4.8 million juggernaut of youth organizing. Once you take out the money spent on fundraising, they are a $1.2 million org that spends 1/5 of its budget padding the pockets of consultants.
I'm sure the rebuttal from the CRNC will be that this is still far better than the College Democrats, but comparing the College Democrats and College Republicans is like comparing apples and oranges. As Barberra herself states, CDA is an appendage of the DNC, while the CRNC is an independent 527, able to raise much greater sums of money on its own and operate independently of the Republican Party. As such, CRNC's closest analogue on the Democratic side of the aisle is the Young Democrats of America, also a 527 organization.
According to Open Secrets' analysis of YDA's expenditures for 2008, the group has raised far less money than CRNC, but the vast majority of YDA's expenditures go towards salaries and programs for young voter outreach. They spend only a fraction of their total budget on fundraising. In fact, even with a budget that is only a fraction of the CRNC's overall budget, YDA still manages to spend more money on their staff and programs than does the CRNC:
Now, I'm not looking to do a full comparison between YDA and the CRNC in terms of program, though I suspect such a comparison will be equally favorable to YDA. Even College Republicans on the CRNC's own blog question their reports about the tens of thousands of new recruits and hundred thousand phone calls cited by Barbera.
Such criticisms from within the organization are also directed at STORM, the social action network/CRM (constituent relationship manager) developed by CRNC. STORM was another accomplishment touted by Barberra, though it is hard to see why. The network is a barren wasteland, used by almost no one; so much so that I was able to infiltrate the network and become one of the "STORM Top 40" - a group of top recruiters given free housing and credentials at the Republican National Convention. This took almost no effort on my part, and to this day, my STORM profile confirms that I only recruited 17 people into the network. Reports on the CRNC blog say that STORM cost between $250 and $300k. Friends in the CMS/CRM business assure me that this price is outrageous for what is essentially a glorified database and email program.
Taking a longer view of the CRNC vs YDA budget also produces some rather unfavorable trends for CRNC. Whereas the YDA budget is growing each year, and YDA always operates within their budget, the CRNC's budget has shrunk dramatically in the last four years. And - ironically for the party of "fiscal responsibility" - CRNC can't seem to operate within their means, racking up massive debt in 2004 and 2006.
So while Drake may have missed the mark with his op-ed against the College Republicans, Barbera's response wasn't much better. A closer look at CRNC unmasks the organization as a paper tiger with more bark than bite.