(Bit)coin of the realm: Rand Paul’s presidential campaign welcomes digital donations

WASHINGTON – Rand Paul, the firebrand libertarian senator from Kentucky, is running for president. And early donors to his campaign are already noting how Paul is setting himself apart from the pack.

He’s taking campaign donations in bitcoin.

Paul’s website will of course accept traditional payment methods such as credit cards but the GOP contender is the first declared candidate in the 2016 race to fund his White House bid with virtual currencies. It’s possible Paul is the first presidential candidate in U.S. history to do so, in the latest sign of how politics and technology now frequently overlap.

Paul has long admired virtual currencies. He’s even thought about ways he would improve bitcoin, which is a form of digital cash that can be spent on real-world goods and services.

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So it’s no surprise that he’d turn to it as a way to juice his campaign. But there’s a longer-term strategic play, here, one that speaks to Paul’s appeal among tech-focused libertarians in Silicon Valley and young people who are eager and early adopters of new services. As The Washington Post’s Katie Zezima wrote:

“[Paul is] opening offices in Austin and Silicon Valley and using platforms like Snapchat to broaden his appeal to younger voters who may not respond to traditional political ad buys or outreach efforts. Paul is also trying to tap into the vast well of tech money, holding meetings with big-pocketed potential donors in California and other tech hubs.”

This raises a key question for Paul’s campaign: Just how big is the techno-libertarian audience he’s trying to reach? Although there’s been substantial polling about Americans’ libertarian leanings in general, their technological bent is less well-defined. Some surveys suggest video gamers identify more closely than others with libertarian beliefs. One completely unscientific reader survey conducted last year by the tech site Pandodaily suggested that the tech scene is still held primarily by liberals, with libertarians coming in a close second.

Still, going after that crowd doesn’t hurt Paul’s party, which needs to attract younger voters to succeed in the coming cycle.

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Meanwhile, by encouraging voters to donate with bitcoin, Paul gets to take advantage of another benefit: Transactions by bitcoin will probably cost his campaign far less in merchant fees, increasing his revenue slightly on every bitcoin transaction. Over hundreds or even thousands of donations, those savings could add up.

Paul isn’t the first candidate to take bitcoin. State-level candidates in a number of places, including New Hampshire and Vermont, have accepted donations in the virtual currency in previous campaign cycles. The Federal Elections Commission voted 6-0 last year to allow bitcoin donations to political committees.