E-Commerce

Squeezing the Internet for Political Cash, Part 2: The March to November

Part 1 of this two-part series covers the way Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign built on several election cycles of Internet wisdom to create a vigorous online presence and fundraising machine.

Much has been made of Barack Obama’s public comments on whether or not he would choose to accept public financing for his general election campaign and Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s reactions to those comments.

However, the legal and political issues are far more complex than the general press is reporting, Justin Buchler, assistant professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University, told the E-Commerce Times. One thing, though, does appear clear: Obama’s Internet fundraising success matters.

“Obama’s ability to raise large amounts of money was certainly a determining factor in his decision to reject public funding,” Buchler asserted. “He can raise many times more through private donations on the Internet than what matching funds would provide.”

The potential for big sums of money to continue coming in is high, said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University.

“When used effectively, the Internet can produce what we call a ‘money bomb’ — generating a lot of money quickly,” Germany told the E-Commerce Times. “But you have to have two things in place for that to happen: a campaign environment that encourages online fundraising; and a highly active, excited base of support.”

Hybridizing Campaigns

The way the Internet adds dimension to the political process is, not surprisingly, the same way it alters other kinds of transactions: by combining information-gathering with action. As an interactive medium — as opposed to, for example, the one-way street of television spots — the Web provides a platform for different types of interaction in a single contact.

“The Internet allows people thinking of intervening — or who just want to know more about candidates — to reach out to them,” Massie Ritsch, communications director with the Center for Responsive Politics, told the E-Commerce Times. “This is a two-way medium that has benefits for both candidates and potential contributors.”

The benefits will only derive, though, to those candidates who see their campaigns as effective syntheses of traditional and online strategies, said Germany.

The Obama campaign seems to view its online fundraising as fundamental — not ancillary — to the success of the campaign,” she stressed. “They’ve developed a back-end database that has become the backbone of the campaign, and so many of their online and offline tactics drive online fundraising.”

Indeed, the days of Howard Dean’s and MoveOn.org’s status as outliers on the political strategy continuum are over, according to Jonathan Zucker, executive director of the partisan Democratic infrastructure support organization ActBlue.

“Most modern campaigns have adopted a hybrid approach to fundraising, whereby donors are directed from mail and phone to the Internet,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Indeed, the Internet is most effective when used as an incorporated [rather than as a standalone] tool. Because of that hybridity, it’s not possible to label internet fundraising as ‘grassroots’ or ‘upstart’ or ‘nontraditional’ any more. The Internet has shown itself during this primary cycle to be a crucial part of any sustainable campaign strategy.”

Shifting Focus

Going forward, though, both presidential candidates, along with many national, state and local candidates, need to keep their eye on how campaigns naturally shift focus as voting day nears. Raising money is one thing — but getting work done and people to the polls is quite another, according to Germany.

“The Obama campaign has to transition from running a primary campaign online to running a general election campaign,” she said. This will include “enabling its community to take very specific actions — in particular, organizing an effective get-out-the-vote effort.”

As for Obama’s Republican rival, Germany said, “the McCain campaign has to do the same thing.”

In addition, both presidential campaigns must aim to continue taking advantage of the biggest change the Internet has brought to the last few election cycles: the entry of the small donor. “Older campaigns wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to process hundreds of (US)$5 and $10 checks,” Zucker said. “But the Internet makes this sort of campaigning possible.”

Squeezing the Internet for Political Cash, Part 1: Follow the Leader

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