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In Obama Fundraising, Signs of a Shift From Online to In-Person

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama reversed a three-month fundraising slide by raising $52 million in June, a monthly total that has been surpassed only by his own performance in February in the history of presidential campaigns, aides announced yesterday.

The Democrat's June effort easily topped that of Republican Sen. John McCain, who announced earlier that he will report raising $22 million for the month. The two are now nearly even in remaining resources. When combined with money gathered by their national party committees, they both began July with just less than $100 million in the bank.

Obama's campaign would not say how much of his total was raised from small donors who gave online, and official reports are not due to be filed until Sunday. But an examination of his campaign schedule -- which has been packed with high-dollar fundraising events -- would suggest that he relied less on Internet donors than he did in February, when he took in $55.4 million.

That month, he raised $30 million in donations of less than $200. Donors contributing similar amounts gave $23.5 million in March, $19.3 million in April and $13.3 million in May, Federal Election Commission records show.

The shift has been noticed by top Obama fundraisers, who have been busily planning the kind of big-money events the candidate was able to bypass in the heat of the primary campaign. Several said in interviews that the campaign is no longer seeing the kind of online bonanza that occurred during Obama's long battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, when more than $1 million was flowing in each day.

The unpredictable nature of Internet giving has added some risk to Obama's decision to forgo federal campaign funding and to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to developing a massive national field operation. By becoming the first to turn away $84.1 million in federal money since it was first made available to presidential candidates, Obama will have to rely heavily on Internet donors to compete with McCain after Labor Day.

An e-mail that Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sent to supporters yesterday to announce the latest fundraising benchmark was not coy about making clear just how much is at stake.

"I know this isn't the first time we've asked you for money, and it won't be the last," he wrote. "We have developed a strategy -- a very aggressive strategy -- that will only work if our millions of supporters continue to contribute their time and their money."

Obama supporters have little reason to doubt his track record -- he has raised nearly $340 million since the campaign began in February 2007.

But Michael Cornfield, a scholar in residence at the nonpartisan firm Capitol Advantage and an expert on Internet fundraising, said it's "closer to impossible than possible" for campaigns to predict how online donors will behave moving forward.

"Raising money online draws on the capacity of the Internet to convert people's momentary enthusiasm or sense of whimsy or outrage into money," he said. "I don't know how you come in and build a budget around that."

Obama campaign aides said they would not discuss their budgeting plans because they consider them proprietary.

But several campaign finance consultants said in interviews this week that Obama is likely to use a wide range of tactics to manage expectations about how much he will bring in.

Anne Lewis, an Internet fundraising consultant who provided the strategy for Clinton's online fundraising effort, said campaigns estimate their budgets based on a wide array of clues from their online donors' past behavior.

The campaigns can measure how many people are opening their e-mail solicitations, and how many who open them ultimately contribute. That can help determine the most effective time of day to send solicitations, the most effective messages to use, even the best place to put the "contribute" button on the campaign's Web site.

"If they are committed to mining that data, they can learn a lot about how their audience responds," Lewis said.

But there is no way to control for every factor. Kristi Allison, 41, who owns a small business in Pinellas Park, Fla., went online 10 times over the course of a year to send Obama small amounts. Her last $25 contribution arrived in the Democratic presidential hopeful's campaign account on March 5. Then, her donations ceased.

Her decision had nothing to do with Obama.

"My feelings have not changed politically," she said. "I just have to worry about my business first. With gas over $4 a gallon, that's where my money is going."

Peter D. Greenberger, who oversees political advertising sales for Google, said he has seen the most online giving come when there are "surprising spikes in voter interest."

And it does not necessarily matter whether the interest is the result of good news or bad news for the candidate. Donations soared, for instance, when Clinton announced she would have to lend her campaign money, and when Obama lost the New Hampshire primary. The key, he said, is that people are compelled to donate because their candidate needs help.

"It's sort of like any news is good news," Greenberger said. "What we say to our clients is: If people are searching, you don't have the luxury of ignoring it."

One key difference between the primary season and the general-election contest is that those news-intensive periods are not likely to be as frequent, particularly during the summer.

For those drawing up general-election budgets, Lewis said, "the scary thing is, most of the money will arrive in September and October. You have to plan on ramping up to the bigger numbers in the fall, before you have concrete proof that the money will be there."

Database editor Sarah Cohen and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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