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The Road to Philly: DNC delegates turn to crowdfunding

Like their candidates, delegates to the convention are turning to the internet and social media to help raise money.

Preparing to hoist ballons to the rafters at the DNC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Philly is hosting the DNC at the Wells Fargo Center starting Monday, July 25, through Thursday, July 28.

Philly is hosting the DNC at the Wells Fargo Center starting Monday, July 25, through Thursday, July 28.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Like many new graduates, Dallas Roberts wanted to celebrate the end of his studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, with a trip. His proposed destination: Philadelphia, where he could attend the Democratic National Convention to support Bernie Sanders.

The 22-year-old couldn't afford the $3,000 he estimated the trip would cost. So he did what many people of his generation would do. He turned to crowdfunding website GoFundMe.

In just under a month, Roberts raised $1,500, enough to cover his $545 flight and a $380 per-night hotel room, which he's sharing with two other delegates.

"You have to come up with funds one way or another," Roberts told me in a phone conversation last week before making the trip to Philadelphia. "Without the GoFundMe campaign and the generous contributions from friends and supporters, I wouldn't have been able to do this."

Roberts isn't alone. Delegates are expected to foot the bill themselves, and attending the DNC is expensive. Organizers require delegates to stay at specific hotels that range in price from $300 to $600 a night, depending on how close they are to the convention center. Then there are flights, meals and the occasional tipple. Add it all up and being on hand for Hillary Clinton's crowning will likely cost many delegates more than $4,000.

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Dallas Roberts, 22, is a delegate from Washington state raising money on GoFundMe to help pay for his trip to the DNC in Philadelphia.

Screenshot of Roberts' GoFundMe photo

So, many have turned to GoFundMe and Indiegogo to raise funds and usher in a new chapter for the websites. Originally started as finance vehicles for oddball tech ventures, pet literary projects and experimental films, the sites have become staging grounds for political operatives soliciting small donations for their activities during this year's wild election cycle.

More than 360 delegates have used 6-year-old GoFundMe to raise funds to travel to Philadelphia or Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention ended last week with maverick candidate Donald Trump accepting the party's nomination. The micro-campaigns have raised a total of more than $385,000, according to GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne.

"This is just the latest example of people figuring out that the platform allows anyone to quickly start a campaign and easily share it with their networks on Facebook and Twitter," Whithorne said.

Indiegogo, which is primarily used to fund entrepreneurial endeavors, has also seen delegates raising money. Since 2011, the company says, it's seen an uptick in people wanting to use the site to also raise money for personal causes. A year ago, the company launched Generosity.com, a sister-site to Indiegogo, that's specifically geared toward personal fund-raising campaigns.

"There are of course many entrepreneurs and creators who raise funds through Indiegogo to get their ideas off the ground," said Michele Husak, head of global communications at Indiegogo. "But you're also seeing nonprofits and even individuals use crowdfunding to support causes they care about."

Observers of politics say the evolution of political fund-raising is a sign of the times that mirrors earlier changes in technology. Campaigns incorporated email campaigns and credit card donations as those technologies became mainstream. For many delegates, especially those who don't hold elected office and aren't part of the party leadership, fund-raising to cover travel expenses has always been done. And crowdfunding online just makes it easier.

"Crowdfunding extends people's networks through social media," said Daniel Kreiss, a professor of political communications at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "It's easier and cheaper to fund-raise online, and I think that's why it's appealing."

Rick Hauptman, 69, a delegate from California pledged to Hillary Clinton, has been involved in Democratic Party activities in San Francisco for more than 40 years and attended his first DNC in 1964 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He said it's common for three or four delegates to have a party at a bar or host some other event to raise money for travel and split the funds.

Hauptman, who was a delegate for Obama in 2012, was among the first people to use GoFundMe four years ago to help raise money for his trip to the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. This time around, he said, the cost of the hotels is much higher and the site has been flooded with campaigns from other delegates.

"When I saw how many other people were using GoFundMe, I was a little worried it might make it harder for me to raise money," the retired IT worker said. Still, he's raised nearly $2,000 so far, enough to defray part of his costs, which he expects will include a $600-a-night room at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Philadelphia.

Liz De La Torre, 30, a Clinton delegate from St. Paul, Minnesota, started her GoFundMe campaign at the advice of friends shortly after she won her spot on the delegation at a statewide convention in early June. But once she saw how many other delegates had already started passing the hat online, she decided to add a traditional fund-raising element to her campaign: homemade tamales for those who donated.

De La Torre said she sold more than 800 tamales and met her goal of $1,600 within three weeks.

"Making tamales is expensive and it's time consuming," De La Torre said, adding that about three-quarters of her donors made contributions without placing a tamale order. "And it was hot in my kitchen. It was hell on Earth."

Despite the worry over finances, getting to the DNC is the thrill of a lifetime, said Roberts, the recent college grad.

Roberts said he blinked hard when he realized that one night in a hotel room cost nearly as much as he was paying in rent a few months ago when he was a student. Still, he said it's worth it, particularly when he hears party elders tell stories about the presidents they were able to see when they were his age.

"I'll be able to tell those stories, too," Roberts said. "I've been dreaming about it ever since I was elected."