Obama Rewriting Rules for Raising Campaign Money Online

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

When Christen Braun decided it was time to learn more about the presidential candidates, the 28-year-old high school teacher from suburban Pittsburgh turned to Google -- right where Sen. Barack Obama's campaign was waiting for her.

Her search triggered an ad for Obama's Web site, which prompted Braun, a Republican, to sign up for the Democratic senator's e-mail list -- and then to make her first political contribution, for $25.

Such transactions help illustrate how Obama has shattered fundraising records and challenged ideas about the way presidential bids are financed. While past campaigns have relied largely on support from small circles of wealthy and well-connected patrons, Obama has received contributions from more than 1 million donors. He raised $91 million in the first two months of 2008 alone, most of it in small amounts over the Internet.

Obama's unprecedented online fundraising success is often depicted as a spontaneous reaction to a charismatic candidate, particularly by young, Internet-savvy supporters. But it is the result of an elaborate marketing effort that has left Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, and Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, struggling to catch up.

Obama aides say their goal has been to "build an online relationship" with supporters who will not only give money but also knock on doors and help register voters for the candidate. To do so, they have spent heavily on Internet ads -- $2.6 million in February alone, more than 10 times as much as Clinton and more than 20 times as much as McCain.

Ads for Obama pop up on political Web sites, such as the left-leaning blog Daily Kos, and on more general ones, such as those of newspapers. Anyone visiting the Dallas Morning News in the weeks before the Texas primary, for instance, was likely to see an Obama appeal stretched along one edge of the screen. The campaign has also attached ads to certain search terms, such as "Iowa caucus locations" or "Ohio primary," on Yahoo, Google and Microsoft search engines.

Obama has targeted unlikely sites, such as the conservative Washington Times, where an ad for the candidate appeared yesterday on the same page as a story about an economic speech he gave that morning. But a click on the ad did not lead to a request for donations; instead, it took users to a page where they could sign up for invitations to campaign events.

This approach -- not directly asking for donations -- has been part of the campaign's strategy of slow-walking its way into supporters' wallets. Newcomers are led to a blog and an online store and are offered a chance to join local Obama groups.

Zack Exley, a campaign consultant who oversaw Internet fundraising for Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, said Obama's e-mails to potential donors stand in stark contrast to those sent by the Clinton campaign.

One recent e-mail, from former president Bill Clinton, was blunt: "Any donation, even as little as $5, can make a difference in this campaign. If you haven't given online yet, now is the time."

Exley said that while the Clinton team has been "really aggressive," the Obama campaign has taken more time to build a rapport with potential donors.

"If you just look at the e-mails and the rhythm -- the Obama campaign has not asked for money every time they could have," Exley said. "They've tried to really show people that they're not just after your money. They're not treating you like an ATM."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company