Billionaire donors and political adversaries are laying down arms and joining forces
by A. Lawrence Chickering & James S. Turner
On April 24, the day the U.S. death toll from coronavirus topped 50,000, a dozen billionaire political donors gathered by video with business leaders, foundation chiefs, scientists, advocates, and political strategists, and laid out a bold plan called IN THIS TOGETHER, to transform the business of politics in post-COVID America.
The group was convened by Dallas real estate scion Trammell S. Crow to bring together major donors to both parties, in a rare effort to reduce political polarization and work across partisan lines to solve problems like climate change. These donors and their peers are expected to contribute $30 billion to presidential campaigns this year, often against each other, in a political arms race that shows no signs of abating. Crow’s objective: to reduce the spend on political warfare, and redirect billions toward solutions that can unite a governing majority of Americans from the left to right.
“We can’t meet this crisis or any future one as a divided nation,” Crow reminded his guests. “We’re not enemies. We’re a family with differences to work through. Polarization is our real enemy.”
For ten years, Crow and other high net worth donors in the virtual room had independently invested well over $100 million to help reunite Americans on issues like the environment, education, and democracy reform. Most of the time, they failed – polarization and gridlock are built too deep in today’s politics and media. Sometimes they succeed – spectacularly.
But at this April 24 meeting, two sets of donors reported on successful models they had separately developed to win elections and advance causes, not by dividing Americans into polarized silos on the far left and right, but by helping them unite across the broad mainstream where 70%+ of the Constitutionally defined American electorate resides.
Their strategies mark a departure from politics-as-usual, where strategists target easy-to-trigger voters at the extreme ends of the spectrum, then add on less strident supporters who are more repelled by the other side’s extremists than their own.
Digital media and big data have intensified the divide. By identifying the biggest fears and deepest prejudices of specific voter segments, strategists can trigger such repulsion at one candidate that voters will readily support the lesser of two evils. That drives turnout among hardened ideologues. But it divides and marginalizes the 70% broad middle – the 7 in 10 voters who are partisan but pragmatic. Most strategists discount them because they are less dogmatic and harder to trigger than those with fixed opinions. It’s simply more cost-effective to motivate the hard-core left to vote down the hard-core right, and vice-versa. Even if they’re frustrated with their own standard-bearers, there’s no question which party’s candidate they’ll vote for.
That strategy drives revenue for pollsters, messagers, and strategists on both sides. But it accelerates a political arms race that is driving campaign costs to astronomical heights.
More worrisome, it undermines those who would rather solve problems than sow discord. It elects candidates beholden to vested interests for dollars and true-believers for votes. Constrained by these two forces, it’s practically impossible for them to legislate. Bipartisan agreements are mostly off the table. Politicians must speak to a base that demands change, while they act to protect a status quo that likes things much as they are.
That makes genuine problem-solving difficult. Evidence-based reform – say, protecting climate, improving schools, or preventing pandemics – requires massive investments by foundations and individual donors willing to outbid the interest groups and offset the ideologues just to get a fair hearing.
But in California, one set of donors has taken a different approach. In campaigns for candidates and ballot measures, they don’t use trigger language or fear tactics to activate a narrow ideological base. Instead, they reach out to eight definable voter segments they call Solution Voters and focus on linking them together on common ground. In highly competitive races, the approach consistently draws at least 15% of once-partisan voters across party lines to elect problem-solvers over polarizers – an almost unheard-of shift.
The strategy helped pass ballot measures to end gerrymandering and open primaries in California, and was essential to the bipartisan agreement that renewed the state’s cap-and-trade climate law, despite intense opposition from ideologues on both sides.
At more than twice the cost of triggering ideologues, Solution Voters used to be expensive to identify and mobilize. But “big data” is changing that. With sophisticated predictive modeling, strategists can identify Solution Voters with 87% accuracy. By reaching a few thousand in a competitive district, they have defeated better-funded but more polarizing candidates.
To take that capacity national, a second set of donors have built a database platform to mobilize voters they call “bridge-builders” and “problem-solvers.” Called Citizen, the database platform includes 270 million Americans, including all 240 million eligible voters, plus 30 million additional influencers. Citizen’s funders plan to mobilize Solution Voters to swing primaries away from polarizers so that when voters mark their ballots in the general election they have at least two problem-solving candidates to choose from.
At the April 24 roundtable, these two donor communities and others joined forces to take their approach national. This Fourth of July, they will launch a cross-partisan recruitment campaign called In This Together. Their audience includes 98 million voters dissatisfied with both parties – especially 45 million bridge-builders and 14 million problem-solvers. By growing a new base of Solution Citizens resistant to ideological litmus tests and interest group manipulation, they hope this new business model will elevate politics and shift influence to the broad 70% base of voters ready to get things done.
Crow doesn’t fit the stereotype for a wealthy Texas political donor. He calls himself an “endangered species:” a Republican environmentalist. His biggest passion is EarthX. Now the world’s largest environmental exhibition on the planet, EarthX is held each Earth Day in Dallas. Crow had planned his biggest EarthX yet this year for the fiftieth Earth Day. He wanted to prove that conservative middle Americans love the planet just as much as coastal progressives.
Then came COVID-19.
Crow sees the pandemic through an ecological lens, as a warning sign of what happens when the planet’s life support systems are strained by the global economy that is too uniform, tightly-connected, and consumptive. Without the diversity to stop global contagions – biological, environmental, and digital – humanity can’t last long.
“The virus is a lesson from nature,” Crow and his coauthor, Bill Shireman, write in their book, In This Together. “If we ignore the lesson and double-down on mass global consumerism, we will lose our prosperity and miss our chance to step forward into a richer, more diverse, resilient, and lasting civilization.”
In This Together launches on Independence Day July 4, with the book, online videos, social media campaign, and a Declaration of Interdependence that recognizes the importance of combining the best qualities of the political right and left to tackle causes ranging from COVID and climate change, to education and justice reform, to prosperity and job creation.
The 70% that do not register as either Democrats or Republicans make their political statement in a voice so scattered that political leaders do not, or pretend to not, hear it. In This Together offers an opportunity for that voice to be focused and heard.
We see In This Together as a powerful transpartisan initiative with a significant possibility to influence events. We plan to watch it carefully and report on its progress between now and inauguration day 2021.