Obama campaign buys Square card readers, makes everyone a bundler

Is this tiny card reader a political bombshell? Credit: Source: Tojosan/Flickr

Eager liberals with iPhones will be hitting you up for cash soon!

There's a pretty important nugget buried at the end of this NPR story about the Obama campaign's tech spending. To most people, the fact that the campaign has dropped more than $40,000 at the Apple Store is the detail that's the most fun, dovetailing nicely with the image of Obama's posse as a group of elitist techno-aesthetes. (This despite the President himself having a well-documented addiction to that dorkiest of smartphones, the BlackBerry.)

But perhaps the most important tech purchase -- or at least the most indicative of the candidate's strategy -- is saved for last by NPR: the campaign is buying hundreds of Square readers, little dongles that plug into a headphone jack and instantly turn your smartphone into a credit card reader. There are a number of reasons why this is such a big deal. Let's start with the obvious: money is the lifeblood of a political campaign, and, despite all the happy talk about turnout and voter enthusiasm and what have you, what any political organization wants first and foremost is money coming in, because that money buys ads to pump up voter enthusiasm and vans to drive voters to the polls.

Thus, anything that represents a window by which money can fly into campaign coffers is to be coveted. More to the point, to use a perhaps overused tech-biz buzzword of the moment, Square readers allow that money to fly into campaign coffers frictionlessly. The days when people walked around with their checkbooks on a day-to-day basis is long gone, and campaigns probably are uncomfortable accepting big wads of paper money -- but just about everyone has a credit or check card in their wallet. An eager Obama volunteer looking to raise money for the president no longer has to wait for their mark to come back with a check the next day or give money on the campaign Website, and maybe change their mind: now they can say "If you'd like to contribute, I can help you do that right now."

This ability in turn has the potential to create a new tech-savvy entry level class of what campaigns call bundlers. Because there are limits on how much money an individual can contribute to a political campaign, people who top out themselves and then wheedle their friends and business associates to do the same at fancy private campaign events, bundling together big gobs of cash in the process, are particularly prized in politics. Generally bundlers get a silly name dreamed up by the campaign -- Bush called his "Rangers" -- and, if they're really lucky, an ambassadorship to a conflict-free tropical island nation. These people tend to be high rollers, and the Obama campaign certainly has recruited its share.

But one of the distinctive features of Obama's '08 campaign was the large number of small donors they managed to harness. And just as Square's low-hassle, low-overhead service helps small-time businesses like food trucks and crafters easily accept credit card payments, so too might it turn non-wealthy but politically passionate people into mini-bundlers: young, eager wonks, who, upon hearing a friend griping about Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, could swoop in and ask that they put their money where their mouth is. Depending on how you look at it, it's either going to democratize fundraising to send the fundraising pyramid scheme one level deeper into everyday life, and it's probably going to be quite lucrative and quite annoying to anyone who hangs out with an Obama volunteer. But the GOP candidates ought to pay attention.

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