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Did AIPAC just waste tens of millions fighting the Iran deal? Not really. Here's what it got.

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Workers prepare the stage for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015.
Workers prepare the stage for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Now that more than one-third of the US Senate has pledged to support the Obama administration's Iran deal, hindsight is making clear what many predicted with foresight: that the vast majority of Democrats would support their president.

The big mystery, then, is why the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spent between $20 million and $40 million on television ads opposing the deal, which aired in at least 23 states. Anybody with a basic understanding of party politics could see deal opponents would very likely lose. Why waste so much money on a long-shot fight? Doesn't that now make AIPAC look weak, having spent all this money and lost?

Here's former AIPAC top lobbyist Steve Rosen: "Where is the lobbying machine? What did all that money buy? This is a very bad moment for AIPAC."

And here's former Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler: "The strength of any 800-pound gorilla lies in the perception that his power is so significant that no one challenges him. But if the 800-pound gorilla challenges and loses, then the deterrence factor is seriously weakened."

First off, it's important to acknowledge that a last-minute, public, big-dollar push is probably the least effective form of lobbying there is. If you're dumping big money this late in the game, it usually means you're far behind. The most effective lobbying comes when policymakers are drafting legislation and policy, not voting on it. There is some evidence, for example, that a bipartisan list of concerns released publicly in April led the administration to hold out for tougher measures on inspections and Iranian centrifuge research.

Was AIPAC targeting its own donors?

There's another kind of strategic lobbying behavior that we often ignore — the strategy of organizational maintenance. It's quite possible that the target audience for the advertising blitz was as much AIPAC's own supporters as it was members of Congress.

AIPAC now operates with a $110 million annual budget, and wants to double that budget over the next five years. To do that, it needs to raise considerable money. That means giving donors a strong reason to contribute.

We don't know for sure who donates to AIPAC, since as a 501(c)(4) organization, it does not disclose its donors. But we can make an educated guess that the major donors to AIPAC have both strong feelings and very deep pockets. It would not be unreasonable to guess that some of them wanted to fight the deal even against long odds, and wouldn't blink at spending tens of millions of dollars to do so.

If AIPAC had decided to hold its lobbying fire, by contrast, it would have left itself open to charges that it had softened, that it wasn't a true supporter of Israel. If it abandoned the hard-line position, it's quite possible that some of its biggest donors would take their money to a new organization that promises to be that hard-line voice. In the words of Elliott Abrams, "If AIPAC would not fight on this issue, many of its supporters would wonder why it even exists."

Advocacy organizations have long found defeats as good for the bottom line. This dynamic was nicely captured in this quip often repeated by Victor Navasky, long-time editor of the Nation magazine: "What's bad for the country is good for the Nation." That is, when the Nation's readership of liberals felt the country was under threat because Republicans were in power, they were more likely to subscribe to the magazine. By contrast, they become less interested in advocacy watchdog journalism when Democrats were in power.

AIPAC's own history confirms this. The organization has taken on high-profile battles and lost before: when President Reagan sold surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and when President George H.W. Bush placed conditions on assistance in an effort to halt settlement building in Israel in the 1990s. Both times, the organization's fundraising — and perceptions of its influence — actually grew.

If you've ever been on the mailing list for an advocacy group, you'll appreciate how groups crank up the fear and threat dials when it comes time to raise money. Generally, the bigger the perceived threat, the more money groups can raise. Winning on the actual policy issues, by contrast, means losing the sense of threat.

Obviously, there are limits. Organizations also need to have some victories so they can show that donations and contributions are having some impact. But for organizations to survive and thrive, it's always better to have an existential threat that demands an all-out fight.

Imagine what would happen to environmental fundraising if the Keystone XL pipeline is finally defeated. Or what would happen to the pro-life movement if Roe v. Wade were overturned. They'd have to come up with another major battle. But all-encompassing fights like these are hard to create.

Consider that national security groups that sprang up to oppose the Iraq War saw their giving tumble once Barack Obama was elected to end the war. By contrast, the Sandy Hook shootings — and the threat of gun control that they brought — were a great gift to the National Rifle Association's revenues, which increased almost 40 percent between 2012 and 2013.

All this suggests that the Iran fight, or the appearance of the Iran fight, will continue a while longer. Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, which opposes the deal, sent a blast email titled "Minds Can Be Changed," asking deal opponents to call their senators demanding that they switch their votes and oppose the deal. And rumors are flying about an allegedly AIPAC-drafted bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran before nuclear deal implementation even begins.

This isn't so bad for pro-deal organizations, either, which can then fundraise off the "New Threats to Iran Deal." The emails write themselves.

It poses a challenge, though, to those in the US and Israel, across the political spectrum, who would like to see public bickering replaced by fence mending. What if, after eight years of rhetoric, nongovernmental organizations have grown too addicted to Iran-driven fundraising to put down their megaphones?