CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - They may not inhabit the traditional world of high-dollar campaign fund-raising, but two youthful computer whizzes are quietly and behind the scenes trying to change how campaigns raise money, netting millions of dollars for Democrats in the process.
Operating from an office just off Harvard Square, Matt DeBergalis and Ben Rahn, through the Web site they created, ActBlue.com, have raised $32 million since it was started in 2004. They are gearing up to make good on their promise that it will raise $100 million for Democrats in this election cycle.
In many ways, ActBlue has turned fund-raising on its head by exploiting the power of the Internet and small donors that was pioneered by Howard Dean and bringing it to the next generation of grass-roots supporters and online donors.
Where big-dollar fund-raising is typically done behind closed doors with well-connected bundlers and showy, costly fund-raisers, ActBlue is just the opposite. It is an Internet-based political action committee that lets Democratic candidates use their Web site as a portal to collect donations, making fund-raising cheap, and, for donors, as simple as a click of a mouse.
Cash comes into ActBlue's Web pages and goes out to candidates: John Edwards has raised more than $4 million for his campaign through ActBlue, not only through his official Web site, which is linked to ActBlue, but also from dozens of supporters who have set up their own Web pages on ActBlue to solicit on his behalf, groups as varied as "Pizza for Progressives" and "Artists for Edwards!"
More than 54,000 online donors have given to Mr. Edwards, and when he announced that his wife's cancer had returned, but that he was staying in the race, more than $100,000 was raised on ActBlue in five hours.
The rapid growth of ActBlue is posing new questions for campaign finance regulators, like whether the millions that Mr. Edwards has raised through it can qualify for federal matching money as he seeks public financing for his primary bid. At the moment, only contributions written as personal checks are counted toward matching funds - not funds raised electronically or through a third party.
Already, the group is affecting the electoral landscape. Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, used ActBlue to raise $934,019 for her leadership political action committee, money that was then funneled to other Democratic candidates.
Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, kicked off his "Roadblock Republicans" effort on ActBlue, which has raised $96,000 since May for yet-to-be-named Democrats who will oppose a handful of Republican senators who will be up for re-election in 2008.
Former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia was urged to run for the Senate in 2008 after supporters on ActBlue started a drive that has raised $450,000. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while sticking largely to traditional fund-raising, has partnered with ActBlue to raise money for 29 House races.
"We want to make campaign fund-raising really easy, as easy as ordering a book online," said Mr. DeBergalis, a computer science graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His ActBlue partner, Mr. Rahn, is a Harvard graduate who left his pursuit of a doctorate in theoretical quantum physics at the California Institute of Technology to develop ActBlue.
"We saw this as an experiment in grass-roots politics," added Mr. DeBergalis, who ran for the Cambridge City Council in 2003 and lost narrowly, "and we are happy to declare it a success."
What makes ActBlue work is its founders' combination of computer savvy and political passion. The site is essentially a back-office clearinghouse - candidates, bloggers, political committee and supporters set up Web pages on ActBlue to solicit online donations for candidates across the country, even in small amounts.
To make things even easier, ActBlue also automatically sets up pages as soon as a Democrat registers for a federal office, or for a state office in 23 states. It also holds fund-raising training sessions online and in person around the country.
To pay for its operations, ActBlue keeps about 1 percent of all donations, as well as asks users to make donations for salaries and expenses.
ActBlue says it has 5,500 fund-raising pages, from the small to the sophisticated. After money is donated through any of those pages, ActBlue sends it to the designated candidate; stacks of checks are sent from ActBlue's Cambridge office every week. For the most part, the donations are small - the average is $100 - but collectively they add up and - in the eyes of supporters - provide a counterweight to the power of special interests in ever more costly elections.
"It's a way of getting money from a broader base of support, and in some ways that is the most intriguing prospect of ActBlue," said Anthony J. Corrado Jr., who teaches campaign finance at Colby College in Waterville, Me. "This is one-stop shopping for individual candidates. You can donate to a candidate and not have to hunt for their Web site or go to a fund-raiser."
Bloggers, in particular, are big fans of ActBlue, as well as big users. To them, ActBlue helps democratize fund-raising. Through ActBlue, bloggers on Web sites like DailyKos and MyDD.com raised $1.5 million for candidates in 2006. Two current efforts, Blue America and Blue Majority, have raised $770,051 and $174,463, respectively, this year.
"Either you had a lot of rich friends, big labor or self-funded political campaigns," said Matt Stoller, a liberal blogger. "ActBlue is another avenue to generate grass-roots excitement and contributions. It opens up the playing field."
One big difference between ActBlue and other political action committees is that, for Democrats, it is an equal opportunity Web site; any Democratic candidate or cause can take part. This contrasts with liberal political action committees like Emily's List and MoveOn.org and with labor union PACs, in which the PAC itself picks out the candidates it supports and donations are made in the name of the PAC.
This year, the focus of some fund-raising is on state races, with the idea that legislatures are in charge of Congressional redistricting. Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia has an ActBlue Web page, "Moving Virginia Forward," that solicits donations toward getting a Democratic majority in the state house. A total of about $128,000 has been raised on Mr. Kaine's site and several others for eight legislative candidates.
Daniel Biss, a University of Chicago math professor, has raised $51,000 through ActBlue for his 2008 race for the Illinois House. His campaign Web site links donors to ActBlue, where his page features a YouTube video of supporter endorsements.
"By far, this is the easiest way for a small candidate to get started," said Dr. Biss, who estimated that he would need a total of $300,000 to $450,000. "The impact has been enormous, and the Web site becomes a rallying point for activists."
In New Hampshire, Jay Buckey, a medical researcher and former astronaut, has raised $19,000 through ActBlue for his Democratic primary bid in his Senate race against former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who has raised $107,000 on ActBlue.
"It's a real democratizing source in politics," said Mr. Buckey, who has raised an additional $30,000 through traditional fund-raising but said ActBlue "makes it easy for people to use their credit cards and donate from other parts of the country."
© 2007 The New York Times