Michele Bachmann, others raise millions for political campaigns with ‘money blurts’

June 19, 2011

In the ever-evolving world of campaign fundraising, some politicians have stumbled on yet another way to bring in buckets of cash. Let’s call it the “money blurt.”

Here’s how it works: An up-and-coming politician blurts out something incendiary, provocative or otherwise controversial. The remark bounces around the blogs and talk shows and becomes a sensation.

And in the midst of it all, the politician’s fundraisers are manning the phones and raking in the donations.

Consider Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the tea party favorite and newly minted presidential candidate, who has made a specialty of raising money in the wake of bold and well-placed remarks. Shortly after accusing President Obama of having “anti-American views” during one cable-news appearance, for example, Bachmann took in nearly $1 million.

The use of money blurts could have a significant impact on the strength of some candidates’ fundraising efforts, which will come into focus next month with the release of fresh disclosure forms for GOP presidential campaigns. Bachmann aides have said she received a major boost with her appearance at a Republican debate in New Hampshire, though they did not release numbers.

The phenomenon marks another phase in the quest for money in politics, fueled by the eternal hum of the Internet, social media and 24-hour cable news. The tactic could prove especially valuable for insurgent candidates such as Bachmann who are likely to rely heavily on smaller donations for their 2012 campaigns.

“It’s a great way to attract a very high volume of small donors and drive excitement,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and co-founder of Singer Bonjean Strategies. “If you’re in the money game and you say something controversial, you’ll have support from a very energetic core.”

The money blurt — spontaneous or not — is a close cousin to a technique called the “money bomb,” in which a campaign or its supporters designate a specific day or time period to raise a vast amount of cash and generate publicity. The best-known practitioner is libertarian favorite Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose followers have used money bombs to raise as much as $6 million at a time for his presidential campaigns.

As for money blurts, perhaps the most famous example came in September 2009, when back-bench House Republican Joe Wilson (S.C.) yelled “You lie!” during an Obama address to Congress.

Within a week of the outburst, supporters had given more than $2 million to the little-known congressman, urged on by conservative bloggers and Wilson’s own campaign. His Democratic challenger cited Wilson’s remark in his own fundraising, prompting a sudden campaign arms race.

“Our office has been overwhelmed with phone calls, letters and contributions,” Wilson said several days after the incident.

Former congressman Alan Grayson, a liberal firebrand from Florida, attracted GOP condemnation in 2009 after he said on the House floor that the Republican health-care plan amounted to “Die quickly.” He quickly raised nearly $1 million.

In another Florida example, Allen West (R) kicked off his run for office in late 2009 with a thundering call to arms that went viral, attracting more than a million views on YouTube. The retired Army officer urged supporters “to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, to charge into the ranks” and “fight with me to take back America!”

West raised nearly $1 million in the weeks after the video took off. It was a key moment in a campaign that eventually took in $6.5 million and defeated congressman Ron Klein (D).

But the real champion of money blurts is Bachmann, according to a comparison of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and television appearances.

The first clear example came in October 2008, before Obama’s election, when Bachmann, on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” said, “I am very concerned that he may have anti-American views.” Bachmann, who until then was not particularly well known nationally, raised almost $1 million over the next few weeks, records show.

In the summer of 2010, Bachmann made a flurry of appearances on news and talk programs to tout her new Tea Party Caucus and ratchet up her criticism of Obama, including suggesting that impeachment might be a good idea. She also accused Obama of “infantilism” and “turning our country into a nation of slaves.”

Bachmann reeled in more than $5 million in contributions during the third quarter of 2010, her best fundraising period, FEC records show.

Even blurts by Bachmann’s opponents seem to have worked to her advantage. On the day that former president Bill Clinton attacked her as an extremist, Bachmann raised $90,000 from named donors, more than two-thirds of it from those giving less than $500.

Bachmann’s ubiquitous media presence and tea party support helped her raise $13.5 million in the 2010 cycle, making her the top fundraiser in the House. Her campaign also received a crucial burst of contributions last week after her well-received appearance at the GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire, where she formally announced her run for the White House.

“President Obama is a one-term president!” Bachmann proclaimed to applause.

Bachmann’s presidential campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week.

Political strategists and campaign finance experts say the use of money blurts marks a modern twist on an age-old strategy of capitalizing on key moments to raise money. The tactic is helped along by the ease of impulse giving on the Internet, while campaigns gain thousands of new names for their donor lists.

Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute, which studies political contributions, said a crucial moment in attracting broad support can come when candidates are recognized as an alternative to a disliked status quo. A well-timed call to arms can often serve that purpose, he said.

“They’re appealing to enough people with enough intensity that they are motivated to act,” Malbin said.

That doesn’t mean it’s always a good strategy, however. Grayson, the former Florida congressman, used an aggressive campaign of Internet ads to raise money in connection with his frequent TV appearances. But his appeal to liberal die-hards around the country apparently did not play well in his moderate Orlando area district; he was defeated in 2010 by Daniel Webster (R).

“You can turn on the money spigot but still end up digging your own grave,” Bonjean said.

It’s hard to tell how much of the money-blurt phenomenon is truly spontaneous — merely taking advantage of an opportunity — or whether some outbursts are timed for maximum financial impact.

Few campaigns will talk candidly about the issue, but media consultants and other strategists say it’s clear that campaigns are getting increasingly sophisticated about the timing of fundraising appeals.

In Bachmann’s case, for example, her debate performance last week was accompanied by a prominent call for donations on the Drudge Report, the conservative news Web site. Her line about a one-term Obama presidency, which garnered widespread notice, was one she has used repeatedly at lesser events in recent months.

Jeff Cosgrove, managing director of the CommonSense Media online advertising network, which has clients in both parties, said a growing number of campaigns book ads in connection with television appearances or other public events.

“These things aren’t necessarily as organic as you would think,” Cosgrove said. “They seem to be often premeditated.”

Deputy Editor, National Politics
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