New analysis from the Campaign Finance Institute demonstrates that Obama received a much smaller percent of his campaign money from donors who gave $200 or less than previously reported. Though Obama’s fundraising was certainly a phenomenon (he raised more money from more people than ever previously imagined, using the internet and social networking tools in unprecedented ways), the percentage of his total fundraising from donors who gave $200 or less (26%) was around the same percent as Bush in 2004 (25%).
That’s right: Bush’s small donor grassroots base in 2004 constituted about the same percentage of total fundraising as Obama’s in 2008.
How is this possible, you ask? Haven’t we been hearing throughout this campaign that around half of Obama’s donations came in chunks of $200 or less…?
The answer lies here: While Obama did receive nearly half of his money in small DONATIONS, many of these donations were from REPEAT DONORS. That is, the same donors gave little bits of money a lot of times. Call it the Obama donation payment plan, with $50 a month donations adding up to a nice chunk of change in the end.
As the report explains it:
“Because of the length of Obama’s battle with Clinton for the nomination, his rejection of public financing for the general election, his personal charisma and, most importantly, because of the way he organized his campaign, Obama was able to use the Internet to go back to go the same supporters over and over again for both volunteer assistance and repeat contributions. These repeaters account for the difference between the past reports that focused on small contributions and the aggregates we are able to provide now.”
Perhaps this represents a different constituency of supporters—a group of people who can afford $50 a month for 10 months but can’t afford $500 in one chunk. Perhaps there’s some merit to this style of fundraising—raising millions of dollars from committed activists who pitch in $50 or $100 a month for the length of a campaign—and these people do represent a broader range of Americans than typical donors. Obama did receive a much higher percent of his money from aggregate donors of $201-$999 than past candidates.
But even if we buy into this notion, the picture of this group is still a very different picture from the one the campaign has been drawing of fundraising drawn mostly from millions of committed average folks from around the country. And even if we feel alright about the payment plan approach, Obama still raised half of his money from donors who gave $1,000 or more, raising 80% more money from this group than the $200 or less crowd, and surpassing all previous big donor fundraising records (in addition to surpassing all fundraising records in general).
None of this is to deny Obama the credit he deserves for running an engaging grassroots campaign that generated more mass electoral participation than we have seen in a long time, if not ever. It doesn’t mean Obama can’t lead our nation through important reform and change that ameliorate many core problems and needs. But it does mean that we shouldn’t buy into the myth that Obama’s campaign has changed our political system’s reliance on special interests and the wealthy. It has not. Fundamental campaign finance reform is still needed. And we should be under no illusion that the Obama Administration will not be affected by many of the hundreds of millions in big industry and big money donations.
Before Obama and after Obama, the same solution is needed. We need a publicly funded system of elections that leverages small donor support with matching public dollars and bars all big money and special interest money from the process. Only with a system that allows voters to literally own the process, will we be able to create a government that truly represents the public.
There may have been some reason to not use the out-dated Presidential public financing program in 2008, but there should be no excuse to not use an updated system in 2012. Right now Obama has the opportunity to lead the effort to fix Presidential public financing by creating a modern system by creating a larger grant, adding a matching system in the primary, and providing a rescue money component that creates more incentives for participation. If Obama is true to his word, this reform will happen and he will use public financing in 2012 should he decide to run for re-election. Only then will we achieve an election system, and a President, whose fundraising accountability comes solely from small donors.