Monday, January 09, 2006

''Fundraising clicks over Internet''

"Politicians pick up on ease of getting campaign dollars---WASHINGTON -- Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman spearheading the Democratic effort to win control of Congress, now schedules regular conference calls with influential liberal bloggers, and the top political professional working for him maintains a presence on their sites, often posting campaign-related messages.

Among Republicans, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and ABC sportscaster Lynn Swann, who last week announced his candidacy for Pennsylvania governor, started gathering e-mail addresses of supporters months in advance through a campaign Web site. He has a video blog in which he narrates his travels around the state, from football tailgate parties to the state Republican Convention.

With midterm elections coming up, it has become clear that no serious campaign can afford to shun an online presence. The Internet is not only a tool for communication and organization. It is emerging as an important means of raising campaign money that already shows signs of altering the funding base for candidates and heightening the chances of upsets in November.

"With each year, it's going to become more and more important, and 2006 is going to be a watershed year at the congressional and gubernatorial level," said Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's Internet-savvy 2004 presidential campaign. "You're going to see races decided by a flood of online money."

Political strategists and academic analysts said that, in turn, online money offers the potential to nudge the balance of political power away from the interests of big-dollar donors and toward causes or personalities that can excite passionate commitment from significant numbers of people of more modest means.

That kind of passion is often generated by political insurgents--be it Dean or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose 2000 presidential primary campaign was the first to stand out nationally for success in raising money over the Internet.

Opponents of the Iraq war have gained political attention as a source of online campaign contributions. But the Web offers a means to more effectively channel the passions of adherents to any cause, on the right or the left. Political campaigns are grappling with the impact of the Internet.

Possible polarizing effect

But some analysts believe the growth of online activism may become another polarizing force in American politics, pulling candidates closer to the ideological bases of their parties.

"I do think that's going to affect the governing agenda," said Michael Malbin, executive director of George Washington University's Campaign Finance Institute. "Both parties will try to keep the issues alive. Why should the minority party compromise when you can use the issue to get to the majority and change the terms of debate?"

The 2006 elections arguably will be the first time control of Congress has been at stake since the Internet became a major force in American life. By September, 12 percent of Americans had made at least one contribution to a cause or charity online, versus 8 percent last January, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. More than one-third of Americans now have high-speed broadband access in their homes, the survey found.

Some political operatives believe an online fundraising campaign already has played a crucial role in a Senate race still a year away, helping Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd stave off a Republican challenge this year in conservative-leaning West Virginia. An e-mail fundraising plea sent out by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to supporters of provided Byrd a powerful boost, collecting nearly $1 million for him within 72 hours and discouraging a potentially formidable challenger.

In August, Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran running as an anti-war Democrat, raised more than $550,000 over the Internet after liberal bloggers took up his cause. He came within 4,000 votes of winning a special election in a southern Ohio district that had been considered safely Republican.

Democrats surpass GOP

During the last presidential campaign, Democrats matched Republicans in small-dollar donations for the first time in decades, largely because of efforts to raise money via the Web. Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign raised $79.6 million in contributions of $200 or less, compared with $78.6 million raised for the Bush campaign, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. On the final day of the Democratic Convention, Kerry raised $6 million online.

At its most fundamental level, the Internet is changing the relationship between political campaigns and small-dollar donors--people who might be persuaded to part with $20 or $50 to make a political point but who would never put on a tuxedo and shell out $1,000 to attend a banquet with a senator.

E-mail cheaper than direct

For decades, the main way campaigns and political groups reached small-dollar donors was through direct mail. But e-mail is less expensive than direct mail or telemarketing, and responses are faster.

David Keating, executive director of The Club for Growth, which raises money for economically conservative candidates, said a typical e-mail plea to his members generates more than half of its dollars within four hours. An appeal by mail ordinarily takes weeks, he added.

Candidates for the House, the Senate or for governor now have readier access to a national following of supporters who can contribute or even do remote campaign work by telephone. And it is far easier for a politically enthusiastic voter in New York or Atlanta to connect with a candidate in Ohio or Indiana. It takes only an instant to click on a banner ad or a link on a blog to be connected to a campaign site and a few more moments to type in a credit card number to complete a contribution.

"Effective online fundraising is that which pushes emotional buttons," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the Daily Kos, a liberal blog that attracts up to a million visitors in a day. "The key is to really feed into the yearning for change . . . not mincing words, not trying to be all Kerry-like or Hillary [Clinton]-like, crafting words so as not to offend anyone."

At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel has included numerous Iraq war veterans who are critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the war among his recruits to run against Republicans for House seats. Another recruit is a former CIA case officer who trained with Valerie Plame, the operative whose identity was allegedly first disclosed by an as-yet-unidentified Bush administration official.

The choice of candidates clearly fits into a conventional political strategy to bolster congressional Democrats' national security credentials during a period of public anxiety over terrorism and to underscore the party's criticisms of the Bush administration. But the campaign committee also was mindful that personal stories open fundraising opportunities through the Web that could compensate for shortcomings in obtaining money from more traditional sources, such as personal wealth or a network of donors from previous elections.

Democracy gets a boost

"A thick Rolodex is no longer the be-all and end-all in politics," said John Lapp, executive director of the campaign committee. "If you have a good profile and an interesting story and a passionate connection with the district, you can attract both a local and national following."

The Bush campaign last year chose to concentrate its online efforts on organizing a volunteer network that has received credit for successful voter turn-out campaigns in swing states. Republican Party officials said they plan to continue cultivating online support for fundraising and grass-roots organizing.

"On the Republican side, it's not as public and it's not as well-known. But there are certainly many well-organized, disciplined and effective programs that Republican candidates and organizations are running online," said Jeff Mascott, managing director of RightClick Strategies, a consulting firm that caters to Republican candidates and conservative causes."-from the story in Sunday's Chicago Tribune.

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