Send money now! Candidates compete for online cash


No, wait. "Hollywood-liberal-elites are trying to hijack a Senate seat in Missouri." Funds needed now to prevent it.

These aren't letters home from distraught relatives or friends. They are part of a ceaseless competition for campaign cash in the email era, from the race for the White House to Congress and local office.

The stakes are high, measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle. Precisely how much is not known, since the Federal Election Commission does not require federal candidates to tally donations raised via email or websites separately from those made in response to traditional mail, phone banks or candidate calls.

In an age of multi-tasking, getting attention fast is critical.

President Barack Obama entered small-dollar donors into a lottery with a chance to have lunch with him last fall. In a follow-up, the prize is dinner with him and former President Bill Clinton.

The idea seems to be catching on. Mitt Romney's campaign is raising funds by giving contributors a chance to be one of four picked to "sit down for a bite to eat" with the Republican presidential contender and his wife, Ann.

Some online appeals include video, like one that Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., included of her rival, Pete Hoekstra, saying he favored drilling for oil in the Great Lakes laterally from onshore platforms.

Others seek a signature on an online petition, an act meant to create a sense of empowerment in the signer, and one that leads quickly to a request for funds.

Opponents of the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker often send out email requests for money that include a list of names of "Great Patriots" and the amounts they have donated. The hope is that others will join.

"It's like a two-minute elevator pitch," said Taryn Rosenkranz, whose company, New Blue Interactive, works for Democratic candidates and causes. "You don't have very much time before you've lost the reader."

Messages delivered digitally are "faster and more agile than TV, direct mail or phones. You can initiate a fundraising campaign the day a news story hits or something of note occurs in the political environment," said Ben Olson, director of online services for the Republican-aligned firm Arena Communications.

Even preview lines -- those short phrases that summarize items in an email inbox -- are viewed as critically important. "Nasty, vindictive and liberal to boot!" read one recently, practically begging to be opened. "Exclusive: We want you to be the first to see this," confided another mass email.

Technology lets campaigns know instantly how much money is coming in the door in response to the latest pitch. "A lot of times what you can do is put out two or three different versions and put them out to different demographics and sometimes through different websites," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic political consultant.

Increasingly, campaigns use Facebook and other social media websites to raise money. Erik Nilsson, vice president at the CDMI, a Republican-aligned firm, claims credit on the company's website for showing that online fundraising yields "can be increased by 52 percent by engaging donors through social networks."

In an interview, Nilsson said, "Friends asking friends are more likely to get a donation and when those donations come in ... they come in much higher."

The next frontier may be donation by text message, which is currently banned.

Among the obstacles is a long lag between the time a donation is made and when it is transferred to the campaign by the mobile company. Also, a text donation to a charity, for example, provides a donor's cell phone number, but not name, address and occupation, information the Federal Election Commission requires to ensure a contribution is legal.

Lawyers representing a pair of consulting firms, one allied with each of the two major political parties, have recommended steps to overcome the difficulties and last month asked the FEC to permit donations by texting.

None of the technical considerations is readily apparent to the potential donor, left to sift through competing appeals.

No event or issue, it seems, is too minor to trigger an urgent and/or outraged request for contributions.

The campaign of Sen. Sherrod Brown wants money because Rove and his allies "have taken the gloves off" and are attacking the Ohio Democrat. "If we can't hit the million-dollar goal for our No Fear Fund, we'll get buried before the summer even starts," said a recent email.

Sarah Steelman, a Republican running for the Senate in Missouri, warned recently that Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill "has a series of liberal celebrities who are funding her campaign ... defeat Hollywood's Third Senator," it says. Photos of Danny DeVito, Susan Sarandon, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg are included, superimposed on the iconic Hollywood sign in the hills of Los Angeles.

In recent days, Florida Democrats claimed they had registered 10 percent more voters than Republicans and pleaded, "Contribute today and help us keep the momentum."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's political organization emailed supporters about her new book, "Can't Is Not an Option."

"If you donate $50 or more to help me continue our fight, you will receive a limited edition personalized copy," she wrote.

Tommy Thompson, a Republican contender for the Senate in Wisconsin, told his email recipients somewhat breathlessly, "We just received our first shipment of yard signs." Anyone interested in having one could stop by the office. If not, they could join the campaign as a volunteer.

Either way, a $20 donation means "we can keep buying more signs."

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