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A Tidal Wave Ahead?

BY Editors | Tuesday, January 8 2008

Colin mentioned yesterday one of my favorite stories out of my new book on technology and politics in the 2008 cycle, “The First Campaign,” how snail mail possibly cost Gary Hart the 1984 election. With snail mail, the time from when a person mailed a check to a campaign to when the money was available to use often took more than ten days. In 1984, Hart pulled a stunning upset over former Vice President Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary, but he found himself hard-pressed to cash in on the results and the new-found momentum because of the lag time in collecting money. Tens of thousands of dollars poured into Hart’s offices around the country in the wake of his surprise Granite State victory, but it wasn’t fast enough to overcome the superior financing of Mondale’s juggernaut. Hart ended up being forced out of the race because of money shortages, even as the money continued to pour in—just not quickly enough to finance the campaign.

In 2000, John Emerson, Hart’s California 1984 campaign manager lamented to the Los Angeles Times, the challenges of raising money for a fast-moving campaign in the age of paper checks and snail mail. “For people to do that they had to know who I was, find my address, get a stamp, write the check, which I then had to deposit. Can you imagine how much more there would have been if all they had to do was go to a Gary Hart web site?”

Contrast that with the playing field by 2000. In the ten days after his upset in the New Hampshire primary, McCain raised $2.2 million online—money that just one cycle before might not have arrived in time to help an upstart insurgent take on a powerful frontrunner. In the end, the money couldn’t save McCain but could this year be different?

John Edwards has already reported he raised a million dollars online since Iowa, the fastest the campaign has ever raised that kind of money, and while we haven’t seen numbers out of Obama yet, it’s a safe bet he’s seeing money flow in online faster than normal too.

Assuming Obama and McCain win big tonight, we could see a tidal wave of online fundraising in the coming days. Even before Iowa, Obama stayed competitive with Hillary’s fundraising juggernaut thanks in large part to small dollar contributions; a surge of donations in coming days might enable him to start putting nails in her political coffin. He’s off tomorrow to a high-dollar fundraising event in New York City, Hillary’s home turf, but I have to imagine that with her aura of inevitability punctured and proof that Obama can, in fact, win, the surge of online money could be the real big money story of the next week. How many people will be inspired tonight by the dawning reality of an Obama presidency to contribute $25, 50, or $100?

Meanwhile McCain, whose fundraising in recent months has been lackluster at best, needs a serious infusion of cash if he’s to pivot from New Hampshire into the expensive national primary schedule ahead. Ron Paul has proven twice with his one-day “money bombs” just how much money is there if a candidate can tap into the right fervor. Could McCain, whose $5.5 million haul in the third quarter was less than the single day Ron Paul “money-bomb” of $6.2 in December, realistically expect to see an equivalent amount of money arrive in his campaign’s accounts in the next week? The answer appears to be yes, given how successful he was in 2000 in a much less-wired society.

The campaign that begins tomorrow, with expensive states like Florida and South Carolina coming before the “Tsunami Tuesday” of February 5th, will require millions in staff, direct mail, and television advertising. Even if McCain’s campaign is nearly broke tonight (we don’t actually know what kind of financial shape it’s in, except that he’s lagged far behind Ron Paul, Guiliani, and Romney in cash), an inspiring victory could lead the Arizona senator to wake up tomorrow morning and find millions of dollars pouring in. Unlike 1984 for Hart and 2000 for McCain, could online money be the savior of John McCain’s once-again-insurgent campaign tonight?