Online Fundraising: Advantage, Dems

Robert Bluey
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Posted: Apr 07, 2007 12:00 AM
Online Fundraising:  Advantage, Dems

The Democrats’ smashing success in first-quarter fundraising doubtless dampened the morale of Republican political strategists hoping for a 2008 comeback. But the number that should cause the most alarm in GOP circles is the more than $15 million that Democrat candidates brought in via the Internet.

Republicans weren’t even close to matching the Democrats’ online donations. Just how far off the pace are they? So far that the top three GOP presidential campaigns declined to release their online fundraising totals when I asked.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the GOP’s pathetic attempt to raise money online in years past. While Democratic campaigns were building a Web-based fundraising infrastructure in 2004, Republicans kept churning out reliable direct-mail pieces.

Prior to 2006, it was hard to argue with the success. Republicans were raising cash and winning elections, creating little incentive to change.

These days, however, Democrats are bustling with optimism -- in part because they know it will take years for Republicans to catch up to them in online fundraising.

In just a few years, the dominant liberal fundraising site ActBlue has collected nearly $21.5 million, including about $4 million since last November. No conservative site comes close. Consider ABC PAC. It raised a little more than $300,000 last year, much of it coming through its Rightroots project geared toward conservative bloggers, including Townhall’s Mary Katharine Ham. So far in 2007, ABC PAC’s slate of 2008 presidential candidates -- all of them Republican -- has raked in a whopping $385.00. American.

I asked Matt Stoller, a liberal blogger at MyDD, why the left has enjoyed so much success raising money online. “Because we hate the direction of the country and desperately want a new president,” he said, “and the Internet is the only channel open to us to make that happen.”

Stoller said the left’s infrastructure was created out of necessity. The right, on the other hand, was content with the status quo. As liberals worked on using the Web to raise money, conservatives regarded it mainly as a means of offering punditry.

Michael Turk, online guru for Bush-Cheney ’04 and one of the few Republicans committed to improving conservative activism online, recently diagnosed some of the GOP’s problems. “The trouble is not the Internet strategists; it is a party that doesn’t believe its people will step up and participate if they are invited to do so,” he wrote on his blog.

Turk is correct. Republicans, with a few exceptions, ignored the Rightroots fundraising effort in 2006. Instead, most GOP campaigns used bloggers to spread dirt about opponents in an effort to get bigger media to pay attention. That strategy often failed.

As a result, the GOP campaign apparatus today has virtually nothing in place to raise money on par with ActBlue. Turk promises me that will soon change. A revamped ABC PAC, Turk writes, will include “every Republican candidate regardless of ideological lean, the ability for bloggers to create their own slates (individually or through groups like Rightroots), and tools to promote your slate on your site (including a real-time total).” All those bells and whistles would be significant advances for the GOP.

But will the if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach work?

Online consultant and former congressional aide David All thinks that if done correctly, a conservative version of ActBlue could be effective. In fact, All said that if someone wants to put up the money, he’ll oversee its development. So far, not surprisingly, he hasn’t had any takers.

Where does this leave conservatives in the short term? Joe Trippi, the mastermind behind Howard Dean’s online success, thinks it’ll be years before conservatives turn the corner and catch up to liberals in terms of online activism and fundraising -- particularly because left-leaning Democrats are off to such a strong start. But Trippi’s confident it will eventually happen, just as conservatives mastered direct mail and took over talk radio. “There’s no doubt in my mind Republicans will figure out how to become a powerhouse on the Internet,” he told me.

Surprisingly, Trippi actually drew his inspiration from Sen. John McCain’s online outreach in 2000. And even today, he gives the Republican Party credit for its online get-out-the-vote effort. However, the top-down approach advocated by many Republican campaigns is destined to fail.

Liberals proved that a trickle-up strategy -- focusing on House and Senate races in 2006 -- is a more effective way to build a steady flow of online funding. Don’t get me wrong, Sen. Barack Obama’s $6.9 million haul from online donations is impressive. But it’s also a result of having already convinced people that giving money online can make a difference.

Of course, the wildcard in all of this is the candidates themselves -- and the mainstream media’s coverage of them. It’s a lot easier for Obama to raise money online when he’s treated like a rock star on TV. Meanwhile, with many conservatives still less than sold on any of the current crop of Republican candidates, there’s little incentive to give them money at all. It all adds up to the likelihood that liberals will maintain their overwhelming advantage in online fundraising for a long time to come.