No Debate: Offline Is the Rocket Fuel of Online Political Giving

FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts G
FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. They interrupt each other, bicker and ignore the moderator. Romney poses his own questions and demands answers. “That’s not true,” Obama huffs over and over. This is presidential conduct? It was squirm-inducing for some viewers. But the candidates have little to lose by cranking up the heat in a tight face, where the focus is on persuading the undecided and firing up their fans. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

As pundits prepare to dissect every word and gesture that come forth from President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney in tonight's debate, their analysis is likely to once again lack examination of the most immediate and critical effect these major events have on campaigns: online fundraising.

As a student of the Internet and the founder of one of its engines of political commerce, I believe old-school politicos and web-centric campaigners alike are beginning to understand the symbiotic relationship between events transpiring offline and those occurring online. Despite this shift, many consultants, staffers and the political news media still regard digital operations as entities separate from the rest of the campaign.  Even this year, we see analysis of the Obama's team technology adoption and Romney's latest tweet as if the Internet campaign operates in a vacuum.  But digital strategists operate within the same campaign parameters as traditional press secretaries and fundraisers.  In fact, in my three years as CEO of an online multi-million dollar fundraising platform for political candidates, I believe the most important axiom in online fundraising is that traditional media-driven events are the rocket fuel for online fundraising.

I see three types of offline events that result in massive, multi-million dollar spikes in online contributions: momentum, "money blurts" and maximum partisanship.  I have a singular vantage point to witness and analyze the data behind some of these political events through donations made on our platform,

As is true in sports, momentum fosters momentum.  When a candidate gains traction by closing a polling gap or extending a lead, dollars pour into their campaigns.  After Romney's strong performance in the first presidential debate three weeks ago, his fundraising dollars rapidly increased; Romney raised $12 million in the 48 hours following the debate. Similarly, immediately after President Obama's strong second debate performance, ABC News confirmed that Obama had his biggest fundraising haul in his campaigning history. In the aftermath of both of these debates, supporters of Romney and Obama felt momentum at their backs and expressed their excitement with contributions. 

While campaign calendars are stocked with well-planned and carefully managed events, every once in awhile the electorate is rocked by game changing outbursts, labeled "money blurts" by the Washington Post last year.  In one of the most competitive Senate races of 2006, Sen. George Allen bellowed an epithet at one of his opponent's young staffers during a campaign event. This "Macaca Moment," was reported to have helped Sen. Jim Webb raise $4 million and win. Correspondingly, during President Obama's 2009 joint session of Congress on health care, Congressman Joe Wilson shouted, "You lie!" Donors across the country, motivated by Wilson's exclamation, gave over $1 million to Wilson and $1 million to his opponent, respectively, in less than 48 hours.

Lastly, one of the most important motivators in politics holds true online: battling across party lines.  Maximum partisanship is displayed when donors are motivated by heightened fear of the other party's policies, values -- and candidates. Obama's biggest fundraising moment in 2008 occurred during Gov. Sarah Palin's speech to the 2008 RNC convention; 130,000 people donated over $10 million within 24 hours.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare outraged over 43,000 donors, who gave over $4.3 million in a 24 hour period to Romney.

In this election cycle, the final debate will play a large role in both candidates' online fundraising.  While both debates have resulted in significant fundraising spikes, there has yet to be a single money-driving moment for campaign fundraising.  This final debate could very well be the biggest opportunity for momentum-making, money-blurting, and, most likely of all, the kind of massive partisanship that both defines and funds our politics today.

Tom Serres is CEO and co-founder of, the largest online fundraising platform for political candidates and advocacy groups this cycle. is used by thousands of candidates as well as nonprofits and individuals raising money for what matters.