Campaign Giving Online Challenges Influence of Major Communal Donors

As the presidential primary season grinds on and traditional donor networks run dry, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are relying on grass-roots activism — both online and off — to generate new sources of campaign cash.

Jewish activists for both campaigns say they are redoubling their outreach efforts, even as they contemplate what it might mean for the Jewish community if online fundraising comes to eclipse the intimate, face-to-face events that have long been favored by major Jewish donors.

“It’s easier to get credit as a community if there’s a Jewish fundraising event or a bundler who is known to reach out to our community,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington media strategist who is supporting Clinton. “Online it’s harder.”

In recent weeks, Obama has outpaced Clinton in money raised, largely due to a surge in online donations. This includes $28 million raised online in January, an amount that exceeds the $27 million brought in through the Internet by former Vermont governor Howard Dean during the entirety of his 2004 presidential bid. If current trends continue, Obama could raise more than $30 million online this month. Clinton, meanwhile, has raised more than $9 million online since the Super Tuesday contests February 5.

Alan Solomont, a onetime finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee who now serves as the Northeast finance chair for Obama, said his current role has as much to do with activating the grass-roots as it does with wrangling money from big donors. While he has tapped his own personal networks, he estimates that he has also raised $5 million through his New England steering committee, a network of smaller fundraisers in the Boston area that by Super Tuesday had ballooned to roughly 120 people, many of whom are working on a political campaign for the first time.

“Certainly, there are a lot of people from our community [of organized Jewish donors] who are involved in this campaign,” Solomont said, “but this is not a campaign that is dominated by the traditional” players. Solomont described himself as being more of an organizer than a bundler, noting that he, like Obama, had started his professional life as a community organizer.

“I think if you are looking forward four, eight, 12 years, you’re seeing campaigns that are driven primarily in terms of the total dollars by online giving,” said Steve Grossman, a former DNC chairman who served as the national campaign co-chairman for Howard Dean in 2004 and is now a top fundraiser for Clinton. Obama “had more donors he could go back to online, and we had more maxed-out donors. We’re now faced with the importance of broadening our base.”

After Super Tuesday, Grossman said, Clinton supporters had an “all-hands-on-deck mentality” and were working to bounce back with money from new donors. He estimated that he had spoken to more than 30 people in the days after February 5, and had raised or had commitments for an additional $50,000, even as he planned to have roughly two dozen “well-chosen conversations” at a wedding he was attending in the Bahamas last week. Grossman is also helping to coordinate a fundraiser for Clinton in Boston on February 22, with the goal of turning out up to 2,000 people at all levels of giving.

In Texas, Arthur Schechter, a longtime supporter of the Clintons, said he was mobilizing support for Hillary Clinton in advance of the Lone Star state’s March 4 primary.

“I’ve been a supporter of Bill Clinton’s since about 15 minutes after I met him,” Schechter said, recalling his visit to the Clintons in the Arkansas governor’s mansion in 1991. Ever since, Schechter has been a close supporter of the couple, traveling to Israel and Jordan with Hillary Clinton during her time as first lady, and serving as ambassador to the Bahamas under Bill Clinton. When Hillary Clinton was mounting her first run for Senate from New York in 2000, Schechter hosted a fundraiser for her at his home, he recalled.

In the view of Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, it is unlikely that the rise of the Internet could supplant the kinds of personal ties that exist between candidates and their prominent Jewish backers.

“You can say online giving dilutes Jewish giving, but that assumes that this game is a zero-sum game, and it’s not,” Forman said. “They can’t live without big donors, either.” According to Steven Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute, the percentage of small donations, of $200 of less, has changed little from four years ago.

The real question, in Rabinowitz’s view, is whether and how the Internet itself will eventually be used more deliberately as a tool for campaigns to raise funds from targeted constituencies, whether it be the Jewish community or environmental activists, based on more detailed profiling than they now undertake. Currently, all the campaigns have features on their Web sites that allow individuals to give money through their friends, letting the campaigns see, in effect, who is responsible for raising donations online.

On the Web site for ActBlue, an online organization that raises money for Democrats, there are several nascent efforts to raise money for candidates on behalf of the Jewish community, including one by a group called Democrats for Israel-L.A. that so far has raised upward of $60,000 from more than 1,000 supporters, according to ActBlue spokeswoman Marissa Doran.

If a new generation of organized Jewish donors eventually moves online, some in the old generation worry about the potential loss of the more personal interactions with candidates, which are made possible by events.

“When you go to meet someone and you talk to them and you get a typical political answer in a small room instead of a straight answer, you can tell that’s a problem,” said Larry Stempler, an NJDC board member who previously supported Senator Joseph Biden’s presidential bid and now supports Clinton. “The problem with the Internet is, number one, you can’t tell someone’s credibility from a report.”

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Campaign Giving Online Challenges Influence of Major Communal Donors

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