As the 2008 presidential campaign becomes known as the Internet
election, candidates who are successful at building online communities
are tapping into millions of dollars in donations.
the first six months of this year, the top three Democratic presidential
hopefuls -- Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, Hillary Clinton of
New York, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina -- raised
more than $28 million dollars in online donations, according to
the New York Times, a figure that excludes Clinton's second quarter
online contributions which she declined to report.
Republicans lagged behind, but the top three -- former New York
Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts
Gov. Mitt Romney -- cleared more than $14 million online.
Together, that's a significant chunk of the approximately $265
million that the candidates have raised from all sources so far.
But even as online fund raising increases overall, some candidates
are benefiting from it far more than others. Obama has a clear
lead; nearly one-third of his money has come from Internet donors,
many of whom have sent the candidate multiple small-dollar donations.
"It's very clear that Barack Obama has created the most
robust online fund-raising machine ever seen in American politics,"
said Andrew Rasiej, editor of the blog TechPresident, which tracks
the 2008 candidates' online campaigns.
Edwards is a close second. He also raised nearly one-third of
his money online, although his total fund-raising numbers are
lower than Obama's.
On the Republican side, none of the front-runners stand out for
their online fund-raising efforts, said Rasiej. On the other hand,
libertarian-leaning long-shot candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas,
has "a rabid online community."
In general, Americans are becoming more accustomed to supporting
causes with online donations, said Michael Bassik, the vice president
for Internet advertising at MSHC partners, a democratic consulting
"I think we're in the golden age of online giving,"
he said. Former presidential contender "Howard Dean, the
tsunami and Hurricane Katrina left America with a culture of online
But it's important to make a distinction between people who would
have donated money to a campaign anyway and simply choose the
Internet as the most convenient means to do so, and those who
most likely wouldn't have donated before the Internet, said Rasiej.
It's that second group -- new donors -- that candidates such
as Obama are attracting, Rasiej said. And they're doing it by
giving voters the tools to build their own communities online.
"Online fund raising is generally a byproduct of community
development," Rasiej said. "Candidates that build robust
communities are the ones that are going to have financial rewards.
And that comes from the vibrancy of their voter-to-voter communications,
as opposed to candidate-to-voter communications."
Candidates are creating profiles on social networking sites such
as Facebook and MySpace, where supporters can gather. They're
also using their official campaign Web sites to create networks
of supporters. Obama and Edwards, for example, both encourage
supporters to create personal Web pages within the campaign site
where they can blog, donate money and connect with other supporters.
This is a kind of "bottom-up" fund raising where the
impetus comes from supporters, rather than the traditional "top-down"
approach where the impetus comes from campaign staff, Rasiej said.
"The key is to give people a site where they're part of a
larger community and can talk to each other without the direct
involvement of the campaign," he said.
In general, he said, campaigns that are more comfortable with
this kind of bottom-up communication will attract more online
money than those with very centralized power structures. That's
why Obama is doing so well, while Clinton lags behind, Rasiej
said. "The Clintons have relied for decades on a close analog
system of donors, as opposed to an online community."
It's also part of the reason why the Republican candidates trail
the Democrats in attracting online donations, in Rasiej's opinion.
"The Republicans in general have a very hard time with the
culture of the Internet, because for decades they've been masters
at managing campaigns from the school of top-down politics,"
he said. Giuliani, for example, doesn't have a Facebook profile,
and his MySpace page is private and accessible only to people
who receive approval, according to the New York Times.
Campaigns still rely on top-down communication and fund-raising
gimmicks, though, particularly when there's an urgent fund-raising
need, such as raising quick funds before the Federal Election
Commission's filing deadlines.
Obama's campaign, for example, announced it would enter anyone
who donated at least $5 to the campaign into a lottery to win
a dinner with the candidate and three other supporters. John Edwards'
wife, Elizabeth, sent an e-mail to supporters saying that she
was trying to attract 10,000 contributions during the week of
his birthday, June 10, and that the campaign would send anyone
who donated at least $6.10 Edwards' mother's pecan pie recipe.
Of course, setting up a Web site and sending fund-raising e-mails
is not enough to guarantee online fund-raising success. Edwards,
for example, has many of the same tools as Obama on his Web site,
but his total and online fund-raising numbers are much lower.
In the end, said Bassik, it's the excitement and momentum behind
the candidate and his or her message and the accompanying media
coverage that make a difference.