By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007
In a political fundraising world traditionally dominated by lobbyists and wealthy business executives, small-dollar donor Hrishi Karthikeyan found a way to make his own splash, right from his desk.
With tools offered free on Barack Obama's Internet site, Karthikeyan, 28, created his own "South Asians for Obama" Web portal to gather money from friends who were inspired to support his favorite candidate. Within days, he was able to forward to Obama's presidential campaign $1,600 -- more than he ever planned to give on his own -- in bundled contributions from those who saw the targeted site.
"I started hearing from people I never met," he said in wonderment.
Karthikeyan is part of a movement that political strategists hope will transform Internet fundraising from a spigot, capable of providing candidates quick spurts of cash here and there, into an around-the-clock supplier of major dollars.
Doug Kelly, a consultant who served as the Democratic National Committee's technology director, said he believes that by November 2008, "the Internet will be the single largest source of revenue for most presidential campaigns -- far outdoing direct mail and other sources."
The growth in online fundraising has been dramatic since 1994, when candidates' Web sites offered only a mailing address where visitors could send checks.
Just last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) invited everyone who had registered on his Web site to buy a $100 e-ticket to an upcoming fundraiser they could "attend" online.
Earlier this month, the campaign manager for former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) tried to tap into an impulsive online-donor world by relaying to supporters a conservative pundit's inflammatory remark about the candidate.
And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) announced that e-mailed entreaties from her husband, former president Bill Clinton, raked in $1 million from 15,000 donors in a single week.
In 2000, McCain stunned competitors by raising more than $6 million in Internet donations before his campaign shut down. Four years later, Democrat Howard Dean hauled in nearly $30 million online.
Even then, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi says, they were just scratching the surface.
"We were pioneering across the great prairie in a covered wagon," he says of the 2004 campaign. "We didn't have YouTube or Facebook or MySpace the way we do now."
And now come Web sites such as ActBlue, which aims to combine the power and passion of political blogging with the ability to instantly contribute to Democratic candidates. Streams of small donations are bundled into larger sums that are certain to grab the attention of candidates -- not unlike lobbyists who might arrive at a candidate breakfast carrying an envelope of checks from clients and partners.
With the first primary votes still 10 months away, Edwards's presidential campaign has collected more than $1 million in donations assembled by ActBlue. Fellow Democrat Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, has gathered more than $300,000 through the same Web site.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project found last year that 73 percent of Americans -- about 147 million adults -- now use the Internet. To tap that audience, presidential contenders have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in innovations such as e-mail solicitations tailored to a supporter's interests; installment plans that let donors make small, monthly contributions; blogs to help turn supporters into donors; and the bundling technology.
Obama's site, as well as those launched by Clinton, McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), allow supporters to sign up to raise money through bundling. Clinton's site lets online donors enlist as "Hillraisers," the term she uses to identify the bundlers who have each pledged to raise $1 million for her presidential bid.
Karthikeyan said the signup process took him only minutes. On Feb. 14, he e-mailed all his contacts and described his effort to mobilize South Asian Americans behind Obama. He urged them to visit his personalized site and "consider making a donation on behalf of our community."
The system then alerted Karthikeyan with an e-mail each time someone donated, telling him the name of the donor and how much was given, and generating a thank-you note for him to sign and send to each donor.
"At first, I got them back from friends," Karthikeyan said. "Then, as those friends passed the link to their contacts, I started hearing from people I had never met."
The viral nature of the giving tree is precisely why campaigns see it as so potent. R. Rebecca Donatelli, a McCain consultant, said she considers it "the online version of neighborhood fundraising," in which people invite their circle of friends to give, and then those friends recruit more donors.
Among the most potent advances this year is the way campaigns are going online to gather data on potential donors. The process of gathering detailed data has been methodical.
"You get a higher response rate when you talk to people about things they care about," said Kelly, the consultant.
Michael Cornfield, an executive at ElectionMall.com, a nonpartisan campaign technology company, said such targeting can begin based on how a person happens across a campaign or fundraising Web site.
During the 2006 campaign, some readers of liberal blogs such as Daily Kos, MyDD and the Swing State Project found they were guided from posts about the race to the ActBlue site, where they were invited to give to bloggers' favored candidates.
In one post on Daily Kos, a blogger rails against former congressman Mark Foley and four congressmen who he says concealed the Florida Republican's interactions with House pages, dubbing those members the "Foley Five."
"Wondering what you can do about it? Let's replace the whole lot," he says, with a link to a page on the ActBlue site called "Fight the Foley Five." The page raised more than $3,000 for the five Democrats challenging those members.
"Is there symbiosis? Absolutely," said ActBlue President Benjamin Rahn.
Rahn called bloggers "one of our most important marketing arms." He credits the "organic process" of blogs sending visitors to ActBlue for producing about $2.3 million in donations last year -- a healthy slice of the $19 million raised for Democratic candidates since the site's creation three years ago.
A similar site, called ABC PAC, has been developed by Republicans. It didn't catch on in 2006, but it is being retooled for the 2008 campaigns. Cornfield said Democrats hold a healthy lead because early investments in the technology were "part of an attempt to match what conservatives had with talk radio and direct mail for years."
Still, of the 60 million people who visited candidate Web sites in 2006, Cornfield said, only 1 in 20 donated money. That has left "tremendous room for growth" for both parties, he added.
Karthikeyan agrees. Last week, the District lawyer invited his donors to a local restaurant to unveil his next plan for helping Obama -- one that has them each shaking the branches of the Internet giving tree by e-mailing 20 more people and seeking $20 from each.
"That way," he said, "we can build our support from a broad segment of the population, not just a few wealthy donors."