Net Election

Six Arguments for Online Fund Raising

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

Online contributions for the four top presidential candidates totaled $3,290,000 during 1999, according to a Politics Online survey. That sum is less than 3 percent of the $138,600,000 they raised overall. And even this unimpressive number is inflated by contributions that are mailed in but accompanied by downloaded contribution forms. (When you account for this, John McCain and not Bill Bradley is the leader in online fund raising, with $1.3 million collected.) But although online fund raising has yet to catch on in any serious way, there are six good reasons to believe at least some of the hype about how big it may turn out to be before the 2000 election cycle is over.

1. It’s cheaper. Online fund raising is less costly than direct mail, phone solicitations, or $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinners. Raising money the old-fashioned way requires hiring professional fund-raisers to identify potential contributors and convince them to write checks. Raising money on a Web site is much less expensive. McCain campaign treasurer Max Fose estimates that it costs roughly $300 to raise $1,000 through direct mail, while it costs only $100 to raise $1,000 online—that’s 66 percent cheaper.

2. It’s easier. E-fund-raising enables candidates to cut down on the time-consuming ballroom speeches and the humiliating spectacle of posing for pictures with wealthy donors. Companies such as Politics Online handle the donation transactions and instantaneously transfer the dough into the campaign bank accounts for 10 percent of the take.

3. It’s faster. The Web reduces the otherwise tedious process of contributing to a campaign to a mere click of the mouse. By facilitating instant contributions, the Internet could help candidates capitalize quickly on early primary wins by buying more TV ads. This may allow John McCain and Bill Bradley to remain competitive through later primaries if they do well in New Hampshire.

4. It brings in new money. While traditional fund-raising methods tend to plumb the same ranks of potential donors, the Web attracts fresh contributors to the political process. The McCain campaign estimates that 39 percent of its online contributors are first-time donors.

5. It’s cleaner. Candidates benefit from the perception that online donations are purer than checks written in response to personal appeals. This may be true, since the average online contribution is low-dollar and not “bundled,” i.e., not gathered en masse with the interests of some industry or company in mind. For this reason, Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics argues that e-fund-raising is “the only healthy development in the campaign-finance process.”

6. It has symbolic value. Online cash intake is already being used as a barometer of grass-roots support. On Meet the Press, McCain recently touted his Internet fund-raising success as an answer to charges that he improperly weighed in with the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of big contributors. Of course, the increasing tendency of political handicappers to cite the size of candidates’ Web war chests will encourage campaigns to pump up their e-fund-raising efforts. It will also encourage them to artificially pump up the amounts raised in this way, as Bradley’s, Bush’s, and Gore’s campaigns are currently doing with contributions that aren’t really made online.