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Online Fundraising: What The Media Should Ask

Cross-posted to Tech President

In the last 72 hours, I’ve taken a fair amount of heat via e-mail about my TP post on Romney’s fundraising. With Alan’s post arguing that anything solicited or fulfilled online should be counted as online; and Roger Craver’s discussion of balanced fundraising, I’ve been rethinking the operational definition of “online fundraising”. While there has definitely been a specific connotation for that term – essentially equating it to “grassroots” fundraising, it appears that many now feel the definition is out-dated.

If that’s the consensus view, I’m not one to stand in the way of progress. If the Internet has become ubiquitous and we no longer need to distinguish between the small dollar donor and the major donor online, so be it. My bigger complaint was always been with the distinction between the low-dollar and high-dollar donors. Where a campaign gets its funds, and who it is ultimately beholden to, should be of concern to everyone. As a result, if we are to stop categorizing donors as online or off, we must draw that distinction elsewhere.

The media should immediately, and for any future reporting, request candidates make available an accounting of their donors. Specifically, they should ask a) how many itemized donors does the campaign have, b) how many unitemized donors, c) of your total receipts, how much is attributable to itemized contributions, d) how much is attributable to unitemized donors? These questions should allow us to better gauge the relative depth and breadth of a candidate’s fundraising appeal.

To his credit, Romney was forthcoming with the total of itemized/unitemized donors, but did not indicate the amounts they raised respectively.

Breaking things out in this way would have provided a better view into the advantage that existed in the fundraising by Bush in 2004. At about the same time in 2004, the Kerry campaign announced it’s one millionth donation, and the Bush campaign announced its one millionth donor. The story told by the media was the Kerry campaign was way ahead on grassroots fundraising. It ignored the fact that the Bush campaign had a much larger stable of donors. The end result was the Bush campaign had somewhere in the neighborhood of 300k to 400k more individual donors than the Kerry campaign, but they were giving via mail and phones.

Update: A commenter pointed out a math error on my original Romney post which I have now corrected. The math didn’t really impact the argument, but I adjusted the figures and left the edits. I also received a note via e-mail asking if the post above was intended as a non-apology apology.

The fact is the term “online donations” had a very specific connotation – one which I and others felt was incorrectly used by the Romney team. Having seen the discussion in my inbox, and the discussion on TechPresident, I can say there is a legitimate argument that the Romney people may have been right to move the goal posts. I can also say that I have probably ascribed to the Romney campaign nefarious motives that may not have been present.

Written by Michael Turk