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Early adopters

The transformation of campaign financing through technology meant that those slower to embrace high-tech were at a disadvantage.

In recent years, Democrats generally have been faster to adopt the technology, with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s failed 2004 presidential campaign paving the way with an impressive Internet operation, showing that online donations could make a campaign competitive. Mr. Dean had programmers on staff who were able to keep his operation up to date.

Republicans have been slower, often turning to long-standing companies and buying off-the-shelf software that doesn’t meet their needs.

“They’ll buy what’s the hottest and latest without a fundamental understanding of how it’s used,” said Moshe Starkman, a Republican technology consultant who has created software to help run many aspects of political organizing and get-out-the-vote operations.

Indeed, there are indications that Republicans were left in the lurch as Democrats pioneered new strategies, culminating in the 2008 Obama campaign, which shattered records for Internet fundraising and online networking, using data to fine-tune its pitches.

But technology is used as leverage to challenge the establishment, and the left’s advantage is only temporary, said Nicco A. Mele, a Harvard lecturer on technology and politics who was webmaster for the Dean campaign.

“Dems have a definite tech advantage, but it was borne out of desperation. They were most desperate when the Internet” came into common use during the years out of power under President George W. Bush, he said.

Party committees historically have done two main things. One was to direct funds from wealthy donors to elections on which its officials chose to focus — a role small donors are taking back. The other is the vetting of candidates, where the focus is on whether they could win.

But Mr. Mele said grass-roots donors are looking for ideological purity as much as for electability.

“That’s how you get people like Romney. And that leaves him open to people like Ron Paul,” Mr. Mele said, pointing to the upstart libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas and presidential candidate who pioneered the “money bomb,” where thousands of people log on to donate on a specific day.

Starting a wave

It also may not be a coincidence that online fundraising came of age after Mr. Dean’s 2004 race — and the three congressional elections since then have been national “wave” elections, with major upheavals and party shifts in Congress.

In 2010, it was the tea party that rode the wave, though many of the movement’s favored candidates, such as Mr. West, still rely heavily on direct-mail fundraising — a tool that Republicans pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s.

With many political mail operations, it is not unusual for 90 percent of a person’s donation to go simply to the cost of printing and stamping solicitations. That has the effect of boosting out-of-state numbers, without commensurate ability of candidates to spend on advertising.

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