Campaigns don’t maximize Internet use

Posted 1:00 p.m. Nov. 15

By Jamie Meltzer
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Many people do not believe stamps and envelopes are high-priced items, but they are for political campaigns.

Virginia’s soon-to-be Governor Mark Warner spent $568,000 on mailings during his campaign, according to financial disclosures. But less than $100,000 was spent on Internet expenditures, even though 75 percent of all of his financial contributions were gathered online.

The tremendous fund-raising power of the Internet was the topic at a Nov. 9 forum at George Washington University where a team of researchers presented their findings on the prevalence of online fund raising.

Sponsored by the university’s Democracy Online Project, it marked the release of the first major study of online contributions to political campaigns. The findings are significant, according to the researchers, because candidates are using the Web as both a communication and fund-raising medium.

“Congress assumed in 1975 that, without spending, political speech would consist merely of standing on a street corner and shouting, one of the few forms of public communication not regulated or reportable under the federal election laws,” researchers said in their report.

While online contributions played a large role in the election of Virginia’s new governor and to a lesser extent last year’s presidential race, researchers pointed to Sept. 11 as an indicator of the Internet’s vast fund-raising power.

Since the days after Sept. 11 when a group of Internet executives launched the charitable Web site www.libertyunites.org, more than $100 million has been raised. In the first week, the site took in $57 million.

The co-founder of the site, Tom Kriese, said most of the success is because visitors can contribute to 64 charities in one place.

“It reduced the barrier between decision and action,” Kriese told the gathering of researchers and students.

He said all donations transferred directly into the charities’ accounts, eliminating much manual work. Now politicians are using the Internet to get information out and collect money from thousands of people at a time, said Ryan Thornburg, a lead researcher in the project.

“The more you contact people, the lower per contact the person is — you don’t have to buy stamps, envelopes, a chicken dinner,” Thornburg said. John McCain, according to Thornburg, preferred online fund raising because the idea played well with his “maverick image.” McCain received a huge number of donations from contributors of many different economic classes, he said.

Panelist Patrick Dillon worked for Mark Warner’s campaign as Web master. He said the average contribution was $100, a larger response than direct mailings usually bring. Dillon sees this as a need to improve campaign technology and said he hopes campaigns will use video e-mail solicitations to gather more support in the future. Larry Purporo, a former Republican National Committee staffer whose party raised $3.5 million online in 2000, was less optimistic about the future of online fundraising among older voters.

“People my age get involved with online giving just so they are not labeled dinosaurs,” he said. Purporo believes that the Web will need to be framed differently in order to be a more effective tool.

“The Web is currently seen as an aircraft carrier from which they launch everything,” he said. According to organizers of the Democracy Online Project and supporters of raising money online, the Web should be an integral part of campaigns and used to its fullest editorial and technological capabilities.

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