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The Poker Players Alliance is about to reach the 500,000-member mark, a significant milestone for a group that had 120,000 members just four months ago.
The 400% growth in membership has been fueled by outrage over the arrests of NETeller's cofounders and the subsequent seizures of money, the high-profile appointment of former Senator Alfonse D'Amato chairman of the board, and a series of PokerStars freerolls that registered tournament entrants.
The result is an impressive base -- one that D'Amato and PPA President Michael Bolcerek believe will lead to online poker regulation and licensing in the U.S.
But what do the numbers actually mean on Capitol Hill?
"It's not really about the numbers," said Massie Ritsch, Communications Director for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington D.C. "You can have a hundred supporters, and if they're active and trying to communicate with their elected officials and coming to Washington, those few hundred members can do the work of a million people. You can also give the impression of having more people, but really have very little actual power."
Lobbying is less about membership figures and more about money and access, says Linda Killian, Director of the Boston University Washington Journalism Center and author of The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution. She believes the addition of D'Amato is a more significant step than 500,000 members because former Senators typically have access to the power structure in Washington.
"Former administration members and Congressman are at the top of the lobby pyramid," Killian said. "They spend three to five years in the capital (on average), build up a wealth of connections, and instantly they become very valuable as a lobbyist."
Killian, whose expertise is in politics, not gambling, said a name like D'Amato's can add a certain level of prestige to a lobby, increasing the group's access level. And with access comes face time with committees and potential decision makers.
Money is also important
The PPA spent $560,000 in direct lobbying efforts last year, 100 percent more than they spent in 2005, according to www.opensecrets.org . This puts them on par with land-based casinos and gambling companies. The MGM Mirage was the largest gambling contributor in 2006, spending $851,085 in 2006. Harrah's Entertainment was second with $531,221.
"People on Capitol Hill responds to two things, money and votes," Killian said.
Both Killian and Ritsch believe a large membership base is only effective if the people involved are active. The PPA claims to be a grassroots organization, one capable of mobilizing its members to cause changes in Congress. But grassroots efforts tend to be hit or miss, according to Ritsch.
Killian said writing letters to Congressman and picking up the phone can have a large impact. Ritsch echoed the sentiment, but said narrow-issued activist groups, like the PPA, are often filled with "casual members," people who appear on paper, but never really show up when it's time to influence a vote.
"It's called Astroturf Lobbing," Ritsch said. "It's a pretty common trick of the trade to form a coalition, fund it with industry money, then put a paint of coat on it that makes it appear like there's a lot of active members."
It comes down to involvement
D'Amato freely admits that much of the PPA's money and clout comes from industry leaders who have an eye on the profitable U.S. online gaming market. But he said this is true of any lobbying effort and believes the number speak for themselves.
"I have a doctor friend who's outraged that he can't play online poker in his home," D'Amato said. "He's an example of the type of members we have. The small guy, who is resentful of a bill pushed through in the dead of night, of the power that resides in just a handful of people."
And according to the experts, the PPA's success will hinge more on the outrage of these "small guys," rather than the 500,000 members.
"Certain members of Congress will pay attention and be impressed by the membership number alone," Ritsch said. "But most are savvy enough to see when it's really an industry behind the effort. When it comes down to it, will one of these online poker players be willing to put in the effort to write a letter or come to Washington? Will they be willing to skim some of their winnings to make a contribution? If they do, who knows, there may be an election or two that swings on a candidate's online gaming position. But online poker players have not established themselves as an influential group the way senior citizens, gun rights, and abortion opponents have."
"In the end, it comes down to how much the members are willing to do," Ritsch said.
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