The Obama Campaign has a new and clever offer to encourage donations. The candidate promises to sit down for a "relaxing" dinner with four ordinary Americans/donors in order hear their views and concerns. We are all now encouraged to send a contribution before a given deadline in order to get a chance to be invited to the next intimate dinner with the candidate. The lucky winners will have their trips and meals paid for by the Campaign. The advertisement, if that is the right word, is careful not to say this is a lottery. I do not mean to turn this blog post into a campaign site, especially because we at Chicago take (justifiable) pride in Senator Obama, and also because to link here to the site, might violate some campaign finance rule, but you can see the offer for yourself by Googling the candidate's name and "dinner" or by navigating through the campaign website.
A lottery, explicit or not, might trigger state gambling regulation and of course income tax concerns. Here, there is certainly no explicit promise to choose the winners/diners at random from the donors. In fact, the Campaign may prefer regional or other diversity at the table. The invited guests in the first round are in fact available for all to see on videos throughthe Campaign website. They are, at least by appearances, brilliantly diverse. One has to admire the Campaign strategy. As a lottery/tax matter, It is almost straight out of a colleague's Income Tax I exam given a year ago; the winners do not receive cash, and the plane fare and food they receive are the "expenses" associated with their providing the candidate with useful advice and material. Still, the prospect of a free, intimate dinner with a true celebrity, and the potential to have one's ideas and concerns be a part of the thinking of someone who could be our next President, might well motivate many donors. The tax-free lottery is a good, and very low cost, way to attract donors.
I admit that I did not like the plan when I first read it. We want our candidates and politicians to be familiar with what "real" people are thinking, but I am not sure we want them to be required to pay in order to get access. Imagine a President who said "I know that I am surrounded by advisors who have a tendency to tell me what they think I want to hear. I know my advisors have a variety of motives. I could pick Americans at random to inform me, or I could dart into a crowd at the next baseball game I attend or at the next military base I visit, and really speak for an hour with a few randomly selected people. But, instead, I will invite soldiers and sailors to donate to my Campaign in order to compete for the time with me. And as for that crowd at the game, I will choose three fans who are waving $50 checks made out to my favorite political cause. Indeed, I need a few good economists to advise me, and while I will choose two on my own, I will choose another two from the set of those with Ph.D.s who donate to my Campaign." We know that many economists would like a chance to be Advisor to the President, and perhaps there is some gain to receiving advice from people one did not choose.
In the end, Campaigns and politics are largely about appearances - and the ability to raise money to spread those appearances around. If the quasi-lottery raises more money, gives the appearance of grassroot participation and access, and (important to me) impresses a skeptical colleague because of its tax and campaign finance cleverness, then it is to be admired. In any event, fundraising techniques do not tell us much about candidates. It is Senator Obama's health-care and other ideas that interest me most. Campaign strategies tell us more about a candidate's advisors and about ourselves.