The Obama Campaign Tries Out a New Cellular Weapon

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The Obama campaign fundraising machine has debuted a new text message tool with encouraging results for the President’s bean counters. On Wednesday, the Obama campaign sent out an SMS message to cell phones and smart phones of tens of thousands of previous donors asking them to give more money. “Support Pres Obama in less than a minute,” the message read, “using our new secure system: just reply with the amount you want to give and we’ll charge your saved credit card.” There is nothing new about asking for money via text message, but the technology behind collecting the money was a first for a presidential campaign. All potential donors had to do to give more money was to type a number into their phone. Write “25,” or “10” and that amount of dollars was immediately drawn from their credit cards into the campaign’s coffers.

For political pros, this sort of instant cell phone fundraising tool has long been sought, but not before been realized. The best known example of its potential was demonstrated after the Haiti earthquake, when a non-profit group, called the Mobile Giving Foundation, partnered with cell phone providers to allow people to instantly give by text message. Those donations were deducted from cellular phone bills. More than $30 million was raised in just a few days. But cell phone providers, and the Mobile Giving Foundation, have not been willing to let non-charitable organizations like political campaigns in on the same gravy train.

The Obama campaign has effectively created a workaround, as I reported earlier this month. Anyone who gives even a few dollars to the Obama campaign is asked if they want to keep their credit cards on file to participate in what the campaign calls “Quick Donate.” This allows the Obama campaign to set up a sort of one-click version of campaign donation, much like Amazon allows return customers to buy books with a simple click of the mouse. If donors come back to the campaign again in the future, via the website, or email, or text message, donors do not have to reenter their credit card information. They need simply click a link. The donations are fully refundable, if there is buyer’s remorse.

A person familiar with Wednesday’s ask said that the response rate was more than 20 times greater than any text message solicitation Obama has sent out before. And the reason is simple: Even with an iPhone, it remains an arduous hassle to enter all the information that is typically required to buy anything online with a credit card.

The real power of this tool will not be realized for months. Campaign officials hope to be able to return to donors in key moments of emotional excitement to trigger the campaign finance equivalent of an impulse buy. One of the Obama campaign’s best fundraising days in 2008, for instance, came right after Sarah Palin’s convention speech. All of those people had to go to a website, almost all with a desktop or laptop computer, and go through the laborious process of entering their credit card information. Now they will only need to type a couple of digits into their cellular phone. Partisans can vent their outrage or enthusiasm by simply typing one number into their phone.