Election Controversy Spurs Big-Bucks Fundraising

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The 36-day post-election battle for Florida's electoral votes spurred a windfall in online giving.


Contributions soared after the election, said Trey Richardson, CEO of eContributor.com, a Washington-based firm that provides online fundraising services for nearly 50 political clients, including the Republican National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.


Richardson said online contributions to his political clients were more than 150 percent higher in the 30 days following the Nov. 7 election than the 30 days prior to the election. Moreover, he said, the average gift for his clients increased by $11 during post-election fundraising.


Stuart Roy, communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the NRSC site tallied its biggest online fundraising numbers of the year during the Florida ballot battle. The committee's site received an astronomic increase on a single day last month -- MSNBC reported that 1,549 contributions rolled in within a few hours.


The most aggressive fundraisers during the post-election period, the legal defense funds created for the Gore and Bush campaigns, have yet to release their totals.


Analysts are not surprised that the Florida battle sparked an increase in Web fundraising.


Anil Mammen, president of Mammen, Pritchard & Associates, a Washington-based political consultancy, said the drama of a battle over the nation's highest office created an "ideal situation for fundraising. The stars were in order. Partisan tempers were flaring and people were asking, 'How can I help?' "


Political organizations and campaign committees quickly gave people an opportunity to act on their passions online.


Just days after the election, as it became apparent that a costly and protracted legal battle was developing in Florida, the Republican and Democratic parties began blanketing their lists of Internet supporters with e-mail solicitations.


The DNC's e-precinct leaders, the RNC's e-champions and Al Gore's "Gore Mail" subscribers all were called upon to sign petitions, call their representatives, spread viral messages to other likely supporters and make online contributions to the legal effort. A message to Gore Mail subscribers on Dec. 7 updated supporters on the latest legal news from Florida, then provided a link to a contribution form at the Gore-Lieberman recount committee Web site.


The campaigns were not the only fundraisers inspired by the debate over Florida's vote.


The NRSC attributes its fundraising boom in large part to conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. After several Democratic senators questioned the legitimacy of thousands of military ballots in the Florida count, Hewitt urged angry listeners to "defeat them" by contributing to Republican Senate candidates online. The NRSC Web site now greets Hewitt's listeners with a banner saying: "Have you heard about us on the radio? Click here to support the cause!"


Consultants say the Florida-related post-election fundraising boom would have been impossible via other direct response media.


"No one could have anticipated at the beginning of November that the legal battle would have dragged on for five weeks," Mammen said.


With the roller coaster of daily, and sometimes hourly, changes in the Florida courts, Mammen said, direct mail would have been too slow. By the time the mail reached supporters, the message in all likelihood would have been irrelevant. Similarly, telemarketing was not a viable option: While an e-mail can reach 50,000 people in an hour, reaching tens of thousands of voters via telemarketing could have taken as long as a week.


Even with the legal battle resolved by the Supreme Court, it is not the end of post-election Web fundraising. The Bush campaign continues to raise money for its transition effort, and the Gore campaign continues to collect contributions through the recount committee Web site.


Hundreds of other candidates nationwide are also testing post-election "debt-reduction" fundraising appeals.


Instead of taking down their Web sites, many candidates, both winners and losers, have simply left their sites up with a thank-you message and a soft appeal asking supporters to help defray the cost of the campaign.


Richardson estimates that half of eContributor's candidate clients have left their sites up for fundraising purposes. And one losing candidate, Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, raised several thousand dollars from a single, post-election thank-you e-mail.


Expect a lot more post-election e-mail in 2002.


"As fundraisers review the numbers from this campaign, they'll discover it's a gold mine," said Tom Hockaday, Gorton's consultant and president of Hockaday-Donatelli, Alexandria, VA, which specializes in voter contact.


"Campaigns can raise money while spending virtually nothing on production," he said. As a result, Hockaday predicts that professional fundraisers will get into the online game and post-election e-mail solicitations will become more frequent, more direct and more similar to direct mail.
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