10 July 2008

Internet Revolutionizes Campaign Fundraising

Successful fundraising efforts appeal to average people online

Barack Obama  (© AP Images)
The Internet helped presidential candidate Barack Obama, shown addressing supporters in Portland, Oregon, build support and funding.

Washington -- Electioneering changed in the 2004 presidential campaign when Democratic contender Howard Dean used the Internet as his staging ground and the public responded by donating time and money. Four years later, Internet fundraising has leapt ahead, with prospective Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama enjoying particular success thanks to Web 2.0 interactive and social networking tools that enhance online community participation.

Phil Tajitsu Nash, lawyer, writer, activist and longtime advocate of the Internet as a campaign tool, runs Campaign Advantage, which helps organizations develop and implement online fundraising strategies.

“Good online fundraising requires not just the technology, and not just the candidate, but also a message that resonates with online audiences. And what that means is that the insurgent candidates, generally speaking, have a better chance of raising money,” Nash told America.gov.

Things have changed since 2000, when “it was very difficult to get people to get a Web site and to get them to understand the benefits,” he said. Incumbents, particularly, clung to old fundraising methods: speeches at a dinner after which they pocket a check. But in 2000, some candidates -- among them 2008 presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain -- raised a few million dollars on the Internet. “That was considered so phenomenal that all of a sudden the big, traditional fundraising operations started taking the Internet seriously,” Nash said.


In 2004, physician, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean raised “a phenomenal amount of money and he showed that an insurgent could raise money effectively,” Nash said.

Even though Dean did not win the nomination, he made political fundraising history. Since his campaign, political machines have adopted his techniques: appealing to average Americans on the Internet and bringing them together in Internet-generated “meet ups.”

“Obama is really Howard Dean 2.0 when it comes to online fundraising,” Nash said, adding that Obama’s grasp of the Internet’s value was evident in his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, “but his operation really benefited from the people who were in the Howard Dean and [2004 Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry operations.”

Howard Dean campaign office  (© AP Images)
The Howard Dean campaign, based in Burlington, Vermont, in 2003 was among the first to harness the Internet for political fundraising.

The Illinois senator’s Internet success comes from harnessing Internet community energy through social networking sites such as Facebook. In 2007, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes left the company to join Obama’s campaign. He helped develop Obama’s campaign Web site, where people connect with neighborhood groups, volunteer, donate money and read the latest news from the Obama campaign. Obama now has more than a million supporters on Facebook alone. He has a presence on other social Web sites, too, including MySpace, Twitter, MyBatanga, MiGente and AsianAve. Obama’s expected opponent McCain, has fewer than 200,000 supporters on Facebook.

Obama is not the only candidate cashing in on the Internet. Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul drew extraordinary support with an online campaign that thrived even though the mainstream news media mostly ignored him. In one day in November 2007, Paul raised $6 million, more than $4 million of it online.

McCain recently pumped more energy into his Internet campaign, using e-mail and blogs and his own social network, McCainSpace, to draw support. His daughter Megan maintains a blog to attract young potential voters.

Politicians’ ears now prick up at the mention of the Internet. “Everybody takes an interest in that they think it’s this genie in a bottle. So they’ll come to you and say, ‘OK, can you raise me $50,[000] to $100,000 online?,’” Nash said, but “no matter how much you want the money to fall into your account, you have to be savvy about it, you have to know how the technology works, you have to keep up with the latest technology.”

Low-profile, local candidates might benefit most from online fundraising because it is free. Political action committees like Democrats’ ActBlue are conduits for campaign contributions. Slatecard is a similar Republican endeavor. Such clearinghouses aim to relieve candidates of the considerable expense of online fundraising by letting candidates set up accounts with their party committee “whether it is libertarian or reform or green or blue or whatever. You come in and they collect the money for you and they put it into your account,” Nash explained. “I think that is the future for a lot of the smaller campaigns” that cannot afford online fees.

He added, “A third of us [voters] are independents, and we really need a service that would help people who are not just Democrats or Republicans.”

ActBlue posts a running account of donations and the number of people who made them. In June, its fundraising topped $50 million, more than 395,000 donors giving to more than 3,000 candidates and committees, with an average donation of $50.

“Small dollar donations are the key to Democratic strength. …You don’t have to be a national campaign to harness the power of small donors,” ActBlue director Jonathan Zucker said.

The Internet can empower grassroots candidates and stimulate dialogue in communities, Nash said. “Civil discourse has broken down so much in this society. I think we need to reinvigorate that. The Internet can bring everyone to the table.”

It can also bring dollars.

See also Obama's campaign Web site and Megan McCain's blog.

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