Young Voters Bolster Campaigns Through Online Donations

This story was written by Jessica Bidgood, Tufts Daily
After the inconclusive results of Feb. 5's Super Tuesday, imminent contests in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont today may mark the end of what has been an intensely competitive and historically memorable Democratic primary.

In recent weeks, special attention has been paid to the unprecedented manner in which the campaigns, particularly that of Senator Obama (D-Ill.), have been financed. With record-breaking fundraising efforts from both candidates in the month of February, a shift in the pattern of political donations is emerging that has revealed the enormous impact of small online donations, many of which have been forked over by young donors.

Guest Professor of Political Science Alan Solomont, who is the chair of the New England Steering Committee for Barack Obama for America, said that the Obama campaign's approach to financing is one that works to achieve breadth rather than depth.

"The way we're raising money is reflective of what we want to see in politics, and I think we've reached the millionth Obama donor," Solomont said. "The fundraising for the campaign is broad-based, inclusive and values every donor equally. It's not about special interest or the way donors have been characterized as fat cats."

Solomont helped to plan Obama's first fundraising event in Boston last April, which raised about $100,000 from student donations alone.

Michael Goldman, a political science lecturer who worked for over 20 years as a political consultant and teaches a class called "Campaigns, Candidates and Elections," believes that the large numbers of small, Internet-based donations are a result of both the exciting nature of this election and the Internet's role in raising awareness of it.

"The Internet has allowed people to access an exciting campaign. If the Internet wasn't here, Barack Obama's campaign would not be what it is now," Goldman said.

"Right now, huge numbers of people who in the past have chosen not to participate are saying, 'Put me down for $25 or $50,'" he added. He believes that this shift in political donation patterns represents a change that has been developing since 2000."In the past, there have been four traditional ways to raise campaign money. People could attend an event, respond to a snail-mail letter, respond as big-ticket donors to direct solicitation from a political candidate or contribute money for ideological, geographic, religious, gender-related [or other personal] reasons."

Goldman explained that the Internet has made it possible to reach out to this latter arm of potential constituents in a more extensive yet highly focused manner that had previously been the most difficult way for candidates to raise money.

Former Democratic candidateBill Bradley pioneered this approach to fundraising in his 2000 presidential campaign, and in the 2004 cycle, Howard Dean's used the Internet to generate a large base of support that fueled his campaign and branded him as the inevitable nominee at the beginning of the race for the Democratic nomination.

Now, Goldman says, candidates are examining the lessons of Dean and those before him and using the Internet to their best advantage.

"A significant number of students have identified candidates for home Internet giving because so much of their life is on the Internet. People use online travel agents; they buy clothes online; they buy books online," Goldman said. "The comfort and ease by which people buy things on Craigslist[.com] or Amazon[.com] means that contributing online is not a big deal. You're used to doing it."

For many candidates, the biggest fundraising hurdle has always been getting people to give their first contribution.

"Because this election is so exciting for the Democrats, there are a lot of people ho are interested. Over time, they're going to give enough money because when you aggregate their small donations, you have an enormous amount," Goldman said.

This new donation pattern has become common at Tufts, where a variety of students have given small donations to this election cycle's campaigns. Sophomore Gabe Frumkin, who is not aligned with a specific political group on campus, made his first political donation in early January. He credits his decision to donate to the wide field and early sense of possibility, along with the availability of information on the candidates.

"I was able to discern what I found appealing about my candidate and intolerable about others," Frumkin said. "Whereas in past elections, namely in 2004, there was this pervasive collective impression that it hardly mattered who ran against President Bush, this primary season has seen a much wider range of candidates with different platforms."

Sophomore Andrea Lowe also made her first monetary campaign contribution this election, giving $25 to Obama's campaign.

"Now that I'm old enough to vote," she said, "it's something that matters more to me. Every donation helps to select the Democratic nominee."

While Lowe is aware of the small size of her donation in relation to the campaign's overall costs, she believes that she is part of a series of significant contributions.

"It's the mentality," she said. "This is how the Obama campaign has been financed - by small donations, many of which come from college students and younger people. I'm part of a bigger movement of people that are giving small amounts, but who are, all together, making a difference."

Senior and President of Tufts' Democrats Courtney Houston-Carter believes that small donations from students like Lowe have been common at Tufts, partially due to the high stakes of this election.

"For our age group, since we've really been following politics, we've always had a president named George W. Bush. Change is going to come in January 2009," Houston-Carter said. "People are excited, people are motivated, people feel like they have a stake and can voice their opinions."

He believes that students' monetary participation in this election is different from that of the 2004 election. "People didn't talk about donating money to John Kerry. Now, it's about phone banking, carpooling and students who don't have a lot of money making small donations, and it just adds up."

Houston-Carter himself donates about five dollars a week to Hillary Clinton, facilitated by the ease of online donation.

"Usually, I'm reading an article online and I feel motivated, and I fill out the credit card information," he said.

Goldman said he believes that the fiscally active nature of younger political participants is part of an experiment that is testing both the success of the Internet fundraising approach and of candidates' ability to make good on the promises that they are making to younger donors.

"This term, people are voting for the candidate who really looks like them," Goldman said. "This cycle, a group which literally since 1968 has been unheard as a significant political force, the 18 to 30 demographic, have once again decided, 'I'm going to play.'"
© 2008 Tufts Daily via U-WIRE
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