As an American in Paris, I am one of nine million eligible voters living outside of the United States. In numbers, we are the equivalent of the 12th largest state in America.
Democrats have long understood not only the electoral power of overseas voters, but also their financial potential as fundraisers and donors. Democrats Abroad, the official organization of the Democratic Party for US citizens living outside the US, currently has members in more than 190 countries, with more than 41 organized country committees. Since 1976, they have played a vital role in ensuring and facilitating the voting process for Americans abroad.
Unlike Americans living in the US, Americans abroad must register to vote every year, and Democrats Abroad, through effective social media and grassroots efforts, has made sure we knew exactly how, when and where to do so.
The latest Global Presidential Primary, held in March 2016, welcomed voters to the polls in person in over 40 countries. (Americans in London were even serenaded by a Dixieland band as they cast their vote.)
In 2008, a total of 22,715 primary votes were counted from abroad. In 2016, that number rose to 34, 570, an indication that not only Democrats Abroad was doing a remarkable job, but also that we, as expatriates, could not sit this one out. Too much was at stake. Voter registration from abroad for the general election also doubled in 2016 from 2012.
I, like thousands of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, trudged through snow to knock on doors everywhere from Nashua, New Hampshire to the streets of West Philadelphia. I phone banked until my voice was hoarse from a field office in Brooklyn and my own home in Paris, France. I organized fundraisers and “get out the vote” events with committed expatriates in France and England. I did everything I could for the better part of two years to help her campaign despite living an ocean away.
Now, we’re about to embark on a fundraising experiment: a committee of Americans in Paris will hold their first fundraiser for a French candidate. The question is whether the well-oiled American style of political fundraising can be exported? Given the political parallels and highly charged election climate of the two countries compounded with the reality that, in both arenas, voter support has shifted away from traditional party affiliation to personal affinity for a candidate’s values and character, we are willing to bet that our ‘made in America’ brand of fundraising can work in France.
So what’s the particular challenge in this approach? Understanding that requires some background on our involvement in the 2016 presidential contest (from an ocean away), and some understanding of the campaign culture in France.
For Americans living abroad, we see the United States from the outside looking in: our involvement and devotion in the 2016 election gave us a connection to our country, a sense of community with our fellow-expats, and an acute awareness of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. “Stronger Together”, we embraced the prospect of the first woman president and her message of inclusion and hope. When Hillary Clinton’s devastating electoral-college defeat to Donald Trump shocked the world, it was a loud wake-up call for Democrats and a visceral sense of loss for her devoted supporters. Then came the harsh realization: despite our expatriate pride as global citizens, we were still, nonetheless, living in an ideological echo chamber. Although, we mourned for our candidate and what could have been, complacency was not an option. We marched in the streets for our values and our future.
For many of us in France, another fiery presidential campaign is on the horizon and we decided to put our campaign experience and know-how to work for Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old newcomer candidate whose newly formed political party, “En Marche,” already counts over 165,000 followers. In six months, since declaring his candidacy in April, Macron has raised 5 million Euros—a good start, but far from the 18 million needed to run a viable campaign in France.
A small committee from the Hillary Clinton campaign in France met for an informal chat with Macron’s Finance Chair and his Chief Foreign Policy Advisor to compare and contrast our different campaign fundraising approaches and ascertain a plan to move forward. However, radically different campaign rules and cultural norms govern each country. Most significantly:
-In France, all nationalities are eligible to donate to a presidential candidate, thereby opening up the potential for very far-reaching global fundraising. American election contributions are strictly limited to American citizens and Green Card holders.
-The maximum individual annual contribution in France for a political party is limited to 7500 Euros and 4600 Euros to a specific candidate. Corporate donations are forbidden and PACS are specific to American politics (for better or for worse…). Remarkably, all contributions in France are tax deductible at 66 percent—another astounding difference between the two political cultures.
-Fundraising methods are also worlds apart: Contributing to an American candidate is embedded in our political traditions. Our expat volunteers organized over 100 official Hillary Clinton campaign events in 28 countries. We worked with the campaign on securing surrogate supporters to ‘host’ the events, moderate talks, or lead issue-specific panel discussions. Madeleine Albright, Billie Jean King, Chelsea Clinton, Dakota Fanning, Anna Wintour, Huma Abedin, and various campaign policy advisors crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific for our events. The numbers are impressive: 10,000 Americans living outside of the United States donated over 10.5 million dollars (again, double the previous record set by the Obama campaign).
This formula is not the case in France. For example, a select group of potential donors are invited to a private home for a dinner or reception with the candidate. Following the event, they receive a polite request to make a donation. This ‘soft ask’ is customary in France and, quite frankly, moderately effective (approximately 30% of those attending events actually come through with a donation) and enormously time consuming.
Despite the seeming advantages to campaign fundraising in France (lower donation limits, tax deductibility, the significant lower cost of financing campaigns and an considerably greater global donor pool), the French are culturally more discreet about money (a taboo subject in any conversation) and even more so about their personal political inclinations. Americans, on the other hand, overtly demonstrate their support for a candidate; donating to a campaign is commonplace in our political culture.
Americans abroad, specifically those of us who supported Clinton from afar, accept we lost an important battle on the American front. But we can still win the war on the other side of the pond: by supporting a candidate who can defeat the Front National, the spirit of inclusion, diversity and equality that have historically united both nations stands a fighting chance.