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Rules of the Game: Texts Could Draw Small Donations

At one time, Republicans dominated the small-donor world, thanks to their aggressive use of direct-mail fundraising. In 2008, Obama turned the tables by collecting a record number of small contributions via social networking and other high-tech tools. In this election, Obama has already used texting as a means to tap existing donors in his campaign’s database.

Both Obama and Romney have toiled to boost their small-donor fundraising totals, in part because low-dollar contributions are a well-recognized gateway for mobilizing volunteers, repeat donors and voters. Noted Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University: “Small-money donors can often be tweaked to be active in lots of other ways.”

For most candidates, Wilcox predicted, small donations raised via text message or other means will not replace large donations to unregulated groups but will simply supplement them.

Even so, the advent of mobile text donations has potentially dramatic ramifications. Text instructions are sure to become a campaign ad staple. Candidates may now call out to crowds at events and rallies to donate via text, Kappel noted. A candidate swamped by a last-minute super PAC expenditure could ask supporters to text small contributions as a way to fight back, he added.

“This is one of those [rulings] that could actually have a substantial impact on how campaigns are run,” Kappel said.

Obama’s success with small donors continues to illustrate their power, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. He noted that the president continues to outstrip Romney on that front. At Obama’s fundraiser last month with movie star George Clooney, the president raised $9 million from low-dollar contributors angling to attend — more than the $6 million forked over by the dinner’s actual guests.

“There’s no question that the money is out there to counter the contributions of the eight-figure donors of this world,” Malbin said. “Many, many people would give if they were asked.”


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