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Bombs Away!

In November 2007, when the presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, raised more than $4.2 million in a single day, the grassroots-fueled "money bomb" became part of the national political conversation. But while the tactic was in greater use this cycle, the underwhelming showing of candidates who employed it reveals its limitations.

Paul speaking at CPAC 2010.

In November 2007, when the presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, raised more than $4.2 million in a day through what's known as a "money bomb," the national media took notice. But so did grassroots activists and campaign strategists.

Think of a money bomb as a high-speed pledge drive, usually conducted over just 24 hours. Used successfully, the tactic can inject life into a campaign, fueling other organizing efforts and underscoring its more traditional strengths. “What a successful money bomb will indicate, beyond money, is depth of support,” says Democratic consultant Harold Cook. “If you can communicate with a supporter and say, ‘Here’s what I need,’ and the supporter responds — that just means you’re a true leader.”

Candidates who can organize voters to donate for a money bomb often also have a knack for getting voters out to knock on doors or make calls, Cook says. In that sense, a money bomb indicates a candidate’s wider appeal. “The correlation is with the ability of candidate to be articulate enough and exciting and compelling enough to beget people to respond to them,” Cook says.

Since Paul’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the tactic has become a favorite among supporters of electoral underdogs like him, especially those with similar libertarian leanings. “For the purposes of Texas politics, this was really the first [election] cycle where we really saw [money bombs] rise to the level of awareness for most people,” says Republican strategist Bill Noble.

But political observers say the underwhelming showing of Tea Party candidates — among the most likely to use money bombs — in Texas primary elections and runoffs this spring reveals the limitations of the strategy. The tactic was frequently employed by the campaigns of since-defeated candidates like Debra Medina and Rick Green.

It’s also been touted by establishment candidates like Gov. Rick Perry. Perry’s re-election campaign announced it had set off a “money cannon” in February, hoping to raise $1.3 million in 24 hours, and it was successful. But campaign finance reports showed that 123 donors gave $1.28 million of those funds and that just 43 donors gave more than $1 million of that money, suggesting that the grassroots support at the heart of a true money bomb was missing.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, says candidates — often outside-the-establishment Republicans — use money bombs to organize a thin but broad layer of support. Paul’s campaign, which brought together traditional libertarians and college-age voters, was a prime example. Another was Medina’s run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination this year, he says.

On the national level, Paul’s son, Rand, an outsider candidate in Kentucky for the U.S. Senate, has used the money bomb to establish himself in that race. And Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, a progressive Democrat, has frequently asked supporters to contribute to money bombs.

Jillson says Green’s campaign for the Texas Supreme Court was supported mostly by social conservatives, as opposed to the libertarians who favored Medina. But both rode the Tea Party wave to greater-than-expected electoral success. And in all cases of big-time money bombs, candidates seem able to mobilize and inspire a passionate and vocal base from either party in a short period. “It’s not something that an established candidate with a traditional fundraising network uses,” Jillson says.

Gary Howard, the spokesman for the Campaign for Liberty, a limited-government, anti-spending effort, says Green's and Medina's supporters organized the money bombs independently of the campaign. “It originated out of a bunch of supporters starting organically,” he says. “It was a grassroots movement.”

Green asked supporters directly to contribute to a Feb. 4 money bomb in a video posted to his website. On that day, Green raised just under $5,000 — not Ron Paul or even Medina money, though well over half his total for the reporting period.

“Internet fundraising is becoming even more important for traditional candidates, but for non-traditional candidates, especially Libertarians, the money bomb has the ability to get a wider range of people,” Jillson says. Indeed, Medina boasts that her gubernatorial campaign had more individual donors than either the Kay Bailey Hutchison or Perry campaigns.

“The key point is that it offers the prospect of raising a significant amount of money, and the Tea Party candidates are almost always underfunded,” Jillson says. “Secondarily, if it is successful, or if the theme that is being employed in the money bomb campaign is interesting, it will capture media attention.”

Noble says the money bomb is a natural outgrowth of social media. “Now we’ve got everything from Twitter to blog posts to e-mail blasts to text messaging,” he says. “You’re able to tweet to your 200 followers or 2,000 followers a quick link saying, 'I’m supporting Rick Perry. I’m inviting you to support him, too.'”

Of course, many candidates are driven to campaign gimmicks or alternative forms of fundraising out of sheer necessity. Cook points to the Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2004 and to Barack Obama’s online fundraising efforts in the 2008 contest when Hillary Clinton had locked up many corporate donors. “When you’re forced to do something for lack of any other option, you get pretty imaginative,” Cook says.

The Medina campaign did not organize any money bombs itself but publicized any such campaigns started by supporters. But the former gubernatorial candidate says none of those campaigns brought in as much money as the 24-hour period after her first televised debate with Perry and Hutchison. “It was a phenomenon made possible because people were able to make a contribution online,” Medina says.

After coming up short in the Republican gubernatorial primary, she says her guess is as good as anyone’s as to how you translate successful short-term fundraising into success at the polls. But the time will come when inexpensive modes of campaigning contribute to electoral victory over candidates with bigger financial backers, she says.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “those bigger donors get just one vote.”

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