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."
Obama's online investment has not come cheap. In January, he spent $768,000 on Web ads, while Clinton spent $171,000 and McCain spent $151,000, campaign finance records show. In February, when Obama spent $2.6 million on ads, Clinton spent $198,000 and McCain spent $111,000.
Obama's take via the Internet in January and February has dwarfed those of his rivals. Clinton raised $37 million online; McCain raised $22 million overall but has not said how much of that came in online.
Political consultants who specialize in online fundraising say Obama has, in two months, rewritten the rules for raising campaign cash.
"Anytime you can reach 1 million donors with the click of a mouse, you redefine the way campaign finance is done in American politics," said Philip A. Musser, a Republican political strategist who serves as a consultant to Google.
The Internet allows a candidate's message to be put in front of virtually any audience. Emily's List, the nation's largest political action committee, spent heavily on Clinton during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and ran ads that appeared when women in Iowa searched Google for such terms as "recipe," "stocking stuffer" and "post-Thanksgiving sales."
"We really were trying to get to women where they live," said Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for the group.
But whether the ads, which largely serve as points of entry, translate into support is not clear.
When one of Obama's ads caught Braun's attention, she clicked. But that was just the beginning. She was met by a welcome screen that presented an obstacle: It asked the visitor to supply an e-mail address to proceed.
At first she hesitated. The schoolteacher described herself as "one of those apathetic people who always felt, 'What does my single vote matter?' " But Braun wanted to learn more about Obama's education programs, so she relented.
Then the e-mails started to arrive.
One told her about the candidate's plan to end the war in Iraq. Another sought her help in registering voters. A video of Obama's "major speech on race" was sent. Of the dozens of e-mails she received, only a handful directly asked for money.
The approach paid off. This year she made four $25 contributions, and she also persuaded her father, a lifelong Republican, to register as a Democrat so he could join her in voting for Obama.