Investing in the Internet

There is an interesting pair of articles in Business Week contrasting both the fundraising and organizing styles of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as they duke it out for the Democratic presidential nomination. The two campaigns really provide a marked contrast in terms of how they view the engagement of small donors -- and even non-donors -- on the internet and how that has been reflected in their fundraising numbers.

The traditional fundraising model has been to lock in as many big donors as possible, get them to write checks for the maximum amount, and recruit their friends to do the same. While big contributions still constitute the bulk of money pouring into this record-breaking presidential race, the "bottom up" organizing approach that the internet facilitates has created a new model for engaging small donors via social networking and other tools, and being able to continually engage them and solicit contributions throughout the cycle. This is something Obama has succeeded at somewhat more than Clinton:

 

Jeremy Snyder, a 23-year-old Portland (Ore.) resident, says he would not have become so active in the campaign were it not for pro-Obama groups on Facebook and My.BarackObama.com. After signing up, he met people in his area who organized debate-watching parties at local pubs, encouraged each other to donate, and planned offline informational and fundraising events. Snyder has since raised money, made phone calls to voters in key primary states, and helped get the vote out at offline events. "What drew me in was how fast the online community was forming around him and that people so close to me [geographically] were getting involved," says Snyder. "The local social networking helps tie in how his policies are going to impact your area and make a difference for you."

 

Clinton is working now to make much broader use of internet organizing and to take advantage of her recent primary wins to bring in money online.

What is interesting about this campaign cycle is that the "magical internet" theory whereby a candidate throws up a website and the money starts pouring in has been (mercifully) replaced with deeper understanding of the engagement opportunities presented in an online organizing model. Voters can speak up about the issues that are important to them, and candidates -- now aware of the benefits of courting those small donors -- have an incentive to respond. This attention to the small donor can be accelerated by pursuing a Clean Elections model for federal elections where all donors are equal in the eyes of the candidate and the focus is entirely on responding to the issues of concern to your constituency as a whole.