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This evening, President Obama is attending a fundraiser in Los Angeles at the home of actor George Clooney. On the guest list, about 150 names. Almost anyone could attend for $40,000. If that price tag is too steep, you could also try your luck at a sweepstakes. A few winners will be allowed in for just about three bucks. A sweepstakes is old territory for marketers and NPR's Sonari Glinton reports that it's the latest innovation in political fundraising.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Marketing-wise, there's nothing more old school than a sweepstakes. You fill out a form, subscribe to a print magazine or two, and then fast forward a few months and the prize patrol is at your front door giving you a check for $10 million.
(SOUNDBITE FROM PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Guess what - you just won the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes.
TIM CALKINS: Sweepstakes are a classic marketing tool. And they do, you know, a couple things that are very important for brands and for organizations.
GLINTON: Tim Calkins is a marketing professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.
CALKINS: One of the big things a sweepstakes will do is, you know, create some excitement around a business. And that's one of the reasons you'll run it because it gets people excited, it gives people a reason to pay attention. The other thing that a sweepstakes does is it's an opportunity for people to engage, and, you know, and then in return a marketer can then, you know, get access to all the contact information.
GLINTON: Calkins says what's true for a product holds true for a political campaign. And the Obama campaign has been holding a variety of sweepstakes since 2007. There's even one to win a shout-out for your mom on Mother's Day. Tonight's not that different. Donors were encouraged to give small amounts, as little as $3, though they didn't have to. Then they were entered into a contest to go to George Clooney's house.
The hope is to turn casual supporters into big fans, like Eugenia Beh, she's a librarian in College Station, Texas.
EUGENIA BEH: For example, at the end of each quarter, they always send out a flurry of emails saying, we really need you to donate to the campaign in order to do, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I usually respond and give a certain amount, usually like 5 or $10. I'm definitely one of the small donors, I guess.
GLINTON: Tonight's Obama-Clooney wild rumpus will raise $6 million from big money donors. Proceeds from the event will go to the Obama Victory Fund, the Democratic National Committee and several state Democratic parties. And one estimate has the event raking in just as much money from the thousands and thousands of small donors, all but four of whom will never set foot in Clooney's Studio City house.
Michael Malbin is with the Campaign Finance Institute. He says the success of tonight's party probably won't be gauged by how many $3 donations roll in.
MICHAEL MALBIN: You don't necessarily need the $3. What you need is for people to feel they have skin in the game. You need them to feel committed and attached to your enterprise, so that when you really want something from them - and that could be time and not just money - but when you do it, that they feel that they've stayed connected to you.
GLINTON: Malbin says Mitt Romney's campaign isn't really using tools like sweepstakes and then not raising as much money using small donations, though he says creating this kind of excitement might be more important for an incumbent. And professor Tim Calkins, the marketing professor, says the real benefit of the sweepstakes goes way beyond the money.
CALKINS: Because once you can start reaching out to them then you can see what they respond to down the road. And all of a sudden you can start learning all sorts of things about what they'll react to, what they'll respond to. You can put them on your mailing list for this program or that program and it gives you this little window to help understand a huge number of people.
GLINTON: And by understanding those people, the campaign can tailor its message and use those $3 donations more effectively. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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