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Rise in Online Fundraising Changed Face of Campaign Donors
Small Contributors Found to Be Polarized but More Representative of Middle Class

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006

The surging number of campaign contributors in 2004, especially the small donors who gave online, changed the character of one of the most important constituencies in U.S. politics, the people who finance presidential elections. This key group has become more reflective of the middle class, has a higher percentage of women and is far more willing to contribute without being directly solicited.

The new small donors, who played a much bigger role in 2004 than in the past, are polarized on ideological, cultural and economic issues in much the same way that large givers are, according to a survey by the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University of all donors, both those using the Internet and those who did not.

"The presidential campaign of 2004 was a watershed moment in political fundraising because of the convergence of a new regulatory regime, a bitterly fought campaign and closely divided electorate, and the increasing sophistication of Internet technology," wrote Joseph Graf, project director of the institute, and three colleagues.

Among the major findings in the 64-page report are:

· The Internet is perhaps the single most important development in political fundraising, and Democrats appear to have taken better advantage of it than Republicans. More than half of Democrats gave online, more than double the percentage of Republicans. More than 80 percent of the contributions by people ages 18 to 34 were made online. Almost half of all small, online donors gave without being asked first by the campaigns.

· Financial supporters of Democrat John F. Kerry were motivated by their animosity to President Bush in much larger numbers than Bush contributors were driven by dislike of Kerry. "The most frequent unsolicited comments in personal interviews with Democrats concerned animosity toward President Bush. . . . Bush donors liked their candidate more than Kerry donors."

· The universe of donors is fluid and changes markedly from election to election. One of the findings most surprising to the authors of the study was that only 31 percent of people who gave the $1,000 maximum to Bush in 2000, including those who made non-Internet donations, contributed in 2004.

· Among all donors, the differences between Republicans and Democrats on such issues as taxes, same-sex marriage and privatization of Social Security are enormous, much larger than in the general public.

A third, 34 percent, of all Bush contributors strongly agreed that "taxes should be cut even if it means reducing public services," and only 1 percent strongly disagreed. Conversely, only 1 percent of all Kerry backers strongly agreed, compared with 62 percent who strongly disagreed.

Similarly, the ratios of those who strongly agree to those who strongly disagree that "government should enact laws to restrict gay marriage" was 46 to 5 among all Bush donors and 2 to 73 among all Kerry contributors.

Because there is not a major ideological difference between all large and small donors, the authors of the study concluded that the "increasing numbers of small donors are not a polarizing influence."

Graf and his three co-authors -- Grant Reeher of Syracuse University, Campaign Finance Institute Director Michael Malbin and Yale post-doctoral fellow Costas Panagopoulos -- said the trends in 2004 are beneficial to the political system, further democratizing the elite-dominated world of campaign finance.

They wrote: "The Internet has helped level the playing field between large donors and small donors. Online political activism diminishes the tremendous fundraising advantage enjoyed by long-term, large donors who move in social circles of donors close to the campaign and lobby on behalf of their candidate. The Internet has helped small, less experienced donors broaden their reach, and hence their influence with others."

The study also found that a quarter of all donors said they attended a political house party, which the authors described as "evidence of the surge in grass-roots organizing."

Graf stressed that the democratization trends should not be overemphasized because donors "are much wealthier and better educated than the general public. Small donors are, too, but they are closer to average Americans. So as we have added small donors, we have made the donor pool a little more reflective of the electorate."

In addition, Graf cautioned that in 2004 the electorate was highly motivated, and "it really remains to be seen whether they [and the new donors] come back in 2008."

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