Why Most Candidates Can’t "Hackett"

The Washington Post reported on August 7, 2005, that “more than two-thirds of the $750,000” raised by Ohio Democrat Paul Hackett’s recent campaign for Congress came from Internet fundraising. But don’t make the mistake of comparing your race to the Hackett race.

No doubt, this latest Internet fundraising success (well, it’s a partial success: Hackett lost the race) will lead political candidates to quixotically attempt to replicate his feat. Of course, few will take the time to consider – and the Post failed to mention – that Hackett’s campaign was anything but ordinary.

The vast majority of races don’t include an anti-Bush Iraq War Veteran running for on open-seat in August of a non-election year. Most elections occur in November of even years – and share the ballot with dozens of other candidates. Most elections are not open seats – instead, they feature a well-funded incumbent versus a greatly handicapped challenger. In short, few races have the national appeal needed to raise large amounts of money over the Internet.

There. I’ve said it.

So when it comes time to assess how much your campaign can raise on the Internet, it’s not really wise to compare your race to the Hackett race. A good friend of mine recently shared this analogy with me. In the early 1980s, when microwave ovens were first gaining popularity, some “forward-thinking” intellectual types predicted that “someday we would all prepare our Thanksgiving Dinner in the microwave!”

I think this is a good analogy for Internet fundraising. Sure, microwave ovens work perfectly for heating up hot water for tea or making oatmeal – but Thanksgiving Dinner? No way! Likewise, the people who see the Internet as a revolutionary tool are right. I love the Internet – and believe it is changing politics. I have a blog. I love technology. But the people who think they can replace traditional political fundraising techniques with the Internet are like people who rely on their microwave for Thanksgiving Dinner.

The Myth
Many political candidates hurt themselves when they aspire to be something the media has glamorized. Think of it this way: there are 50 Governors and 535 Members of Congress. Almost all of them have tried to raise money over the Internet with moderate success (to be generous). And yet, we are still hyping a mere two or three men (John McCain, Howard Dean, and now, Paul Hackett) who have been extremely successful with online fundraising. Political Action Committee fundraiser Nancy Bocskor, who raises money for Republican Members of Congress, explains, “Of the eight sources of funding for political campaigns, websites are still the last one on the list.”

Using Technology to Actually Raise Money
No candidate likes to ask for money, but the real secret to fundraising is that you do have to ask for a contribution. No technology devised by man can replace this truism. Smart candidates use technology as a tool to enhance their ability to ask for contributions. Here’s how:

  • Research: Knowing a donor’s capacity, as well as the issues that motivate him, make asking for money much easier. There are many sites to help you find these answers, but at the federal level, my favorite is PoliticalMoneyLine www.tray.com. Note: It is illegal to use this source as a way to find new donors. However, it is permissible to use this source to research potential donors that you already know.
  • Processing Credit Cards: One of the rules of traditional direct mail fundraising messaging is to express urgency. Our assumption is that if donors procrastinate, they will forget to send the check. That’s why we use deadlines -- and sometimes self-addressed stamped envelopes. The Internet allows us to take this one step further. One of the untold advantages of having the ability to accept online contributions goes hand-in-hand with phone solicitation. Once you get a donor to pledge to you over the phone, direct her to your website where she can make an immediate credit card contribution online.
  • Get Proactive: Studies show that although only about 25 percent of Internet users read blogs, about 90 percent of Internet users have email. Instead of passively hoping supporters will make a donation on your website, why not use email to drive them to your site? The key is to use the same techniques that already work in direct mail fundraising. Identify a problem, allow the reader to solve the problem (by making a donation), stress urgency, use emotion, etc. In this regard, email can be more effective than direct mail because the cost is nominal (no stamps or paper), and the donor can simply “click here” to make an “urgent” donation.

    Warning: While some argue that the costs for online fundraising are very low, the overhead costs are higher than you might think. Sure, email doesn’t require postage. But in the end, Web consultant fees, list rentals and mailing design can eat up that “savings.”

  • Tracking Them Down: This may seem obvious, but one of the most important ways the Internet has helped fundraising is simply the ability to track down donor contact info. Websites like Google, LexisNexis, Anywho.com, 411.com, etc. have all made it much easier to track down the contact information for donors all over America – for free. It’s hard for us to remember, but ten years ago this technology simply didn’t exist.

    The media have ignored this larger, effective part of the Internet fundraising story because it is not “sexy.” Instead, they have focused on the more glamorous fundraising tales featuring John McCain, Howard Dean, and most recently, Paul Hackett. Sure, your campaign needs a website that spotlights its online contribution capabilities and provides secure credit card transactions. But does that mean you’re going to raise as much cash as Howard Dean or John McCain? Not likely.

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