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The anatomy of a misleading fundraising email

Democrats' pitch rife with curious, questionable statements

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 Updated:

The tone of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's latest fundraising pitch is decidedly doomsdayist.

"There are only 48 hours left — so I'll be blunt: If we get blown out on this first quarterly fundraising deadline, President Obama's agenda is toast," DCCC Finance Director Missy Kurek wrote in an email Friday.

While Republican and Democratic committees both love larding such cash come-ons with hyperbole, puffery and overstatement, the DCCC's latest missive is notably rife, containing a demonstrable error or unsubstantiated assertion in almost every sentence. 

The email's first sentence, for example, writes urgently of a "first quarterly fundraising deadline."

The problem? National party committees such as the DCCC and its counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, have no legal quarterly fundraising deadlines. While many candidates and PACs file quarterly reports with the Federal Election Commission, the DCCC and its brethren disclose their books to the FEC monthly.

Meanwhile, Obama himself might be surprised to learn that the DCCC considers the fate of his policy agenda to hinge on it keeping fundraising pace with Republicans ahead of a quarterly deadline that doesn't exist. The money the group raises also predominantly fuels campaign efforts for midterm congressional elections that will take place 20 months from now.

Organizing for Action, the nonprofit advocacy organization that sprung from Obama's massive campaign committee, offered no such gloom Friday in its own solicitation, instead suggesting the president finds himself in a position of strength: "People like you got President Obama to this point  — now it's time to finish what we started."

As for the DCCC's fundraising message, several other curiosities:

Statement: "Boehner is already bragging about the Republicans' $14.4 million haul this month. With that kind of cash, they can rip apart everything President Obama proposes for the next two years."

The rub: The $14.4 million refers to the amount of money the NRCC raised this month at its annual March dinner. While that's significant money, most of it will go toward midterm U.S. House campaign efforts, which won't start in earnest until early 2014. The money will also have little bearing on current policy debates over guns, financial matters and immigration. (On immigration, Republicans and Democrats are finding a good deal of common ground.) And if recent history is any guide, the DCCC is in pretty decent shape: It raised more cash than the NRCC in both January and February. At the end of February, the NRCC had $4.4 million cash on hand and $10 million in debt, according to federal records. The DCCC reported about $7.6 million cash on hand and $10.9 million in debt. By this measure, the DCCC is in a stronger overall financial position than the NRCC, although both committees are operating in the red.

Statement: "As of 9am, we are $737,000 short of what we need to close the fundraising gap and fight Republican attacks before Sunday's fundraising deadline."

The rub: March fundraising numbers for the NRCC and DCCC won't be revealed publicly until April 20. So unless the DCCC has secret access to enemy files, there's no empirical way in real time to determine whether it's leading or trailing the NRCC in fundraising this month. If the DCCC is referring to some other "fundraising gap," it doesn't explain what it is. But statements such as this aren't designed to appeal to prospective donors' accounting sensibilities. The success of fundraising appeals often depend on their emotional appeal. They aim to stoke fears that the other side has an advantage that must immediately be addressed. A concrete fundraising goal can help make people feel as if their contributions make a difference.

Statement: "Donate today and we'll triple-match your gift: Chip in $3 or more to support President Obama's agenda"

The rub: National party committees frequently use variations on the "triple-match" to entice people to donate. In practice, a contribution made in response to the "triple-match" solicitation isn't leveraging any new money, and the DCCC offers no details about what money is supposedly being used to match contributions. It's a "marketing gimmick," said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California-Irvine. Say a wealthy person did pledge to match contributions to the DCCC. That individual is only allowed by federal law to contribute $32,400 to a national party committee per year. That means it'd be illegal for the person to triple match any donation greater than $10,800, and plenty of political patrons give that much or more. And Hasen suggested, would these individuals really not have made their own maxed-out contribution to the DCCC if they couldn't be part of a contribution matching program? Other Democratic party and candidate committees could conceivably profide matching funds, since they may transfer unlimited amounts of cash to the DCCC. But they'd be cannibalizing Democratic resources to do so — hardly efficient. 

Statement: "You and I worked too hard in 2012 to let the Republicans derail President Obama's agenda. Let's use the first big fundraising report of the year to show that we're not done fighting for change."

The rub: The DCCC's primary purpose isn't issue advocacy — it's helping Democrats win elected office. Obama's Organizing for Action nonprofit, along with a host of other outside groups, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-gun super PAC, are the front-line warriors in a nationwide effort to press the president's agenda. And the notion that the DCCC's March fundraising report is "the first big fundraising report of the year" ignores the fact that it filed the same kind of monthly reports in January and February.

Statement: "Donate $3 or more right now — when your donation will make the biggest difference."

The rub: If the DCCC's goal is to demonstrate in March it has enough cash to combat Republicans dollar for dollar, it doesn't matter whether one makes a donation on March 1 or March 31. It'll all show up next month on the same report.

Officials at the DCCC did not respond to questions about today's fundraising email.