WASHINGTON — The website has the look and feel of Barack Obama’s official page, and the headline says it all: “Bank it for Barack.” The site asks for contributions of up to $5,000 per person to help the Illinois Democrat win the crucial state of California.
The effort employs a tactic that could transform the way campaign-related money is collected and spent in presidential campaigns .
The group sponsoring the Web page is not Obama’s campaign, but an independent political action committee called Vote Hope 2008, which says that its goal is to help Obama become president and that it will spend $2 million to get out the vote for him.
Federal law prohibits political action committees, or PACs, from spending more than $5,000 in support of a candidate.
But Vote Hope’s founders argue that this restriction does not apply to their group because they do not plan to coordinate their spending with Obama’s campaign. Thus, there’s no limit to what they can spend promoting him, they said. What’s more, the group said contributors who have given the maximum $2,300 individual do nation to Obama’s campaign can give $5,000 to Vote Hope 2008, the maximum individual donation to a PAC.
Vote Hope then would spend these donations promoting Obama, giving donors a way to nearly triple their maximum contribution to Obama’s cause. The implications are potentially dramatic, according to campaign finance specialists, especially if other PACs follow Vote Hope’s example for Obama or other candidates.
“I haven’t seen another one like this,” said Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official and co founder of PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan group that tracks money and politics. If the group is able to raise money successfully, it could be copied by others and that in turn “would create a wide new avenue for campaign-related cash.”
The pro-Obama PAC was set up by a group of liberal activists, including Steve Phillips, a former president of the San Francisco Board of Education and son-in-law of Herb and Marion Sandler, who are high-profile backers of Democrats.
Bill Burton, Obama campaign spokesman, when asked about the effort, distanced the campaign from Vote Hope 2008, saying: “We appreciate the tremendous grass roots. But if people want to help out our campaign, we prefer they would do it directly through our campaign.”
The creators of Vote Hope consider themselves pioneers, working to find a way to elect Obama in a state that they say will be crucial for Obama but that has not received as much attention as early-voting states such as New Hampshire, which has a tentative primary date of Jan. 22.
California has moved its primary to Feb. 5, but the state is so expensive for campaigns that many candidates are putting off major expenditures there. That is where Vote Hope sees its opening: It wants to tap donors who have already given the maximum to Obama’s campaign in order to raise more money to help the senator win in California.
“The combination of unbridled grass-roots volunteer energy and an unprecedented number of maxed-out donors this early in the calendar makes something like Vote Hope possible in states that are expensive to organize and have a large donor base,” said Vote Hope spokeswoman Jenifer Fernandez Ancona.
She said the group will help elect Obama by working to “identify infrequent voters in communities of color and young people in California” and getting them to vote. Vote Hope said campaign finance laws allow a PAC to solicit individual donations of up to $5,000 and then to spend unlimited funds on Obama as long as certain conditions are met.
The rules say that donors to PACs cannot “give with the knowledge that a substantial portion will be contributed to, or expended on behalf of, that candidate.” The same rule says, however, that such donations are permissible if donors don’t retain control over how the money is spent.
Vote Hope maintains that because its donors can’t specify how their money will be spent, these contributions to the PAC are legal. “Everything Vote Hope is doing is above board and permissible under the law,” said Vote Hope’s lawyer, Joseph M. Birkenstock, who served from 1998 to 2003 as chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee.
The Globe interviewed a number of specialists in campaign finance who said they could think of no other example of a major PAC being set up specifically to work for the election of a candidate during a presidential primary, aside from PACs set up to draft candidates or established by the politicians for themselves.
“It is a novel idea that hasn’t been utilized in this fashion before that I’m aware of at the presidential level,” said Keith Davis of Huckaby Davis Lisker, a firm that works with Republican campaigns on compliance with federal election law.
“If it works, then, obviously, there will be a lot of people who try to do the same thing . . . in both parties,” he said. “The same structure could be used for House and Senate campaigns.”
Davis and other specialists said a key question is whether enough people who have contributed the maximum $2,300 to Obama’s campaign will also want to contribute $5,000 to Vote Hope for the organization to meet its $2 million goal. Ancona said the group has raised $108,000, and “there are more than enough donors in California who are inspired by Vote Hope’s strategy to get us” to $2 million.
Separately, Vote Hope has set up what is known as a 527 organization, which can collect unlimited funds from individuals but is not allowed to support a candidate directly. Both Vote Hope groups have the same name, which has led to some confusion, including reports that a few wealthy individuals are contributing large amounts to a Vote Hope 527 formed to elect Obama.
In fact, the organizers said, only the PAC will work explicitly for an Obama victory by getting Californians to register and vote by mail starting Jan. 9 , and have 500,000 Obama votes “in the bank” by the primary on Feb. 5.
Vote Hope is distinct from PACs set up by many candidates. For example, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney established his federal Commonwealth PAC and state affiliates prior to announcing his candidacy. He used those PACs to travel and support other candidates. Funds from such PACs cannot be transferred to Romney’s campaign.
According to the Romney campaign, there does not appear to be an independent PAC working on behalf of Romney in the way that Vote Hope is helping Obama. But campaign specialists said that could change quickly if Vote Hope’s tactic proves viable.