This is reposted from the GOP Tech Summit on Ning. The RNC will be collecting ideas for online activism and its broader implications (my focus here) through the end of the week -- and this is your chance to get your two cents in.
Traditional campaigns usually unfold in this order:
- Raise money and stockpile resources so that you can afford to get your message out.
- Spend the money to get your message out and gather support, usually through expensive mediums like TV, radio, or mail.
Barack Obama flipped this model in 2008. Yes, he was able to raise impressive sums early on from bundlers like David Geffen and Penny Pritzker. Considering how the campaign unfolded, this round of funding can be likened to angel investors in a startup: they give enough to buy the pencils and fund operations for a few months, but the company is ultimately expected to sink or swim of its own weight by selling direct to the consumer.
In this case, selling direct to the consumer meant money and volunteer hours, not just votes. Fundraising was not the province of a few bundlers or a few closely guarded lists or of a few direct mail tricks, but of an innovative campaign that fused fundraising, volunteer activity, and vote-getting.
This is what a typical McCain fundraiser in the last campaign looked like:
And this is what a typical Obama fundraiser looked like:
If you're telling yourself that was primarily a rally, not a fundraiser, you're right. The difference is that 1) the event in question was held on February 23, 2007 -- two years ago Monday -- on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, not exactly when we're used to seeking big rallies and not exactly Iowa or New Hampshire. And 2) to get in to the event, each person had to register for tickets online. Getting someone's e-mail address is like raising $10 or $15, and in Obama's case, probably more like $35 or $40. The 20,000 people at that event probably donated $1,000,000 collectively to Obama -- and the cost of acquisition was nearly zero -- more than all but the most successful rubber chicken Republican fundraisers.
In this way, the traditional model was turned upside down: for the most part, Obama gathered political support and only then did he really kick the fundraising into high gear. This is different -- in a messier and unpredictable way, but also in a more lucrative way -- than stockpiling resources to meet a budget and shifting the focus late in the game from fundraising to grassroots. Cashflow issues aside though, I doubt that the Obama people minded much when the money came in.
The lesson here is that fundraising is not an independent variable. Fundraising is a dependent variable and the independent variable is the message. There does not exist an innate ability to fundraise independent of a strong message -- unless the candidate is fabulously wealthy and can self-fund. And in cases where there might be, all the fundraising in the world cannot overcome a poor message. If a candidate is wealthy or has rich friends, but has no message, the GOP should run -- not walk -- away from that candidate.
This is directly relevant to the RNC -- and all our campaign committees -- because they will often seek out self-funders with the thought that it might relieve the financial burden on the committee and allow it to invest in races where more help is needed. Political consultants often tend to favor this type of candidate -- because they pay. This is all well and good, if the candidate is a good candidate with a strong message, but if not, we're in trouble. And if a race really matters, the RNC or any other committee will probably pour in resources regardless. Paid media is not very leverageable and even $10 million can go to waste quickly if the force multiplier that is the message is zero.
Beyond a focus on self-funders, the all-consuming focus on early high-dollar fundraising is a direct threat to those of us who would like to a see a pervasive grassroots focus throughout the entire campaign. Hundreds of man hours are spent putting together an individual event, by which time the $2,400 check collected at the door nets you $1,500. Hours a day of the candidate's time are spent on the phone with big donors, and then we wonder why candidates are seen as insiders who can't connect with the grassroots. There is no doubt that this model can raise a lot of money. But not enough. Barack Obama shows that the alternative to this can not only raise enough money to compete -- it can utterly destroy the 100 city, $2,400-a-plate tour. Ask Hillary Clinton what it feels like to be the candidate of big donors.
The big donor, big bundler model worked in 2000 and was on its last legs in 2004, but we must now confront the reality that it just doesn't scale very well. It's important that we lay down a clear marker for future campaigns, and institutionalize this at the RNC: finding a creative way to collect 100,000 online petition signatures is now more important than the New York City finance event. I'm sorry, but it just is. It should require more executive level focus. It's more efficient and it scales better and it allows you to do everything you need to do in one fell swoop: get donors and activists all at the same time.