Report (Mostly) Debunks Obama Small Donor Myth

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.


Scorecard Reflects Progress on Campaign Finance Reform

NC Voters for Clean Elections has released its 2007-2008 “Legislative Scorecard on Campaign Reform,” assessing legislative support for campaign finance and ethics reform.

The scorecard gives all 170 current N.C. General Assembly members an overall campaign reform score and highlights the reform achievements of the 2007-2008 legislative session. The scores are based mostly on whether or not legislators supported Voter-Owned Elections, the consensus solution for providing an alternative to special interest campaign money.

Though many of the votes were close, the scorecard reflects on a legislative session where Voter-Owned Elections gained significant traction in our state.

Some of the session’s achievements included: the creation of a new public financing program for the Council of State, a new joint oversight committee on Election reform, improvements to the judicial public financing program, and the establishment of a municipal public financing program for the town of Chapel Hill.

Click here to read our press release.

Click here to view the full scorecard.


* Overall, Democrats outperformed Republicans: Democrats earned an average score of 89%; Republicans’ 27%.

* Perfect scores were earned by 34 members in the N.C. House and 15 members in the N.C. Senate

* Zero per cent ratings were earned by two legislators, Rep. George Holmes (R-Yadkin) and Louis Pate (R-Wayne)

* The lowest Democratic score was 33%, earned by Rep. Ronnie Sutton (D-Robeson)

* The average score in the House was 60%, and the average score in the Senate was 71%

* Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) had the lowest score of any legislative leader, with a rating of 14%


Women’s GOTV Group Behind Deceptive Calls, Mailings

The group behind the misleading, confusing, and racially charged robo-call which caused investigative intrigue Monday was revealed today as Women's Voices, Women's Votes (WVWV), an ostensibly progressive and non-partisan electoral engagement organization with ties to the Clinton campaign.

A report by the Institute for Southern Studies unveiled the connection after Democracy NC issued a complaint to the State Board about the robo-calls earlier this week. 

Officially, Women's Voices Women's Votes' stated mission is to engage more "unmarried women" in the election process, and it claims to be leading a 3 million person nationwide registration effort.  However, the sincerity of this mission has been called into question with the revelation that Women's Voices was behind the misleading and confusing robo-calls placed to thousands of North Carolina residences late last week.  The calls provided vague information that caused many registered voters to question whether they were registered to vote.  It was also revealed that the organization was behind similarly dubious "registration efforts" in Virginia, Ohio and other states.

Both the North Carolina robo-call and the registration mailing planned for 276,000 North Carolina households come weeks after North Carolina's by-mail primary registration deadline, giving further cause to suspect it is not part of a legitimate voter registration effort.  Critics point out that the calls and mailings instead come just as North Carolinians are voting in mass in the state's primary, and has the potential to cause confusion for hundreds of thousands of voters.  Critics also point out that the message seems purposefully targeted at African-Americans and others who are already registered.

The Obama campaign has called the calls "extremely disturbing" and said they are similar to classic "voter suppression" techniques. 

Attorney General Roy Cooper has said the calls are illegal and has sent the group a strongly worded letter telling them to cease their calls

At the State Board's and Democracy NC's urging Women's Voices has apologized for "the confusion" and said they will try and intercept the mailing, but it is not yet known if this will be possible.

Here's WVWV founder and President Page Gardner's response to "the confusion" and their involvement 

The group's earlier robo-call featured a racially charged message from a "Lamont Williams" urging people to "make their voices heard," to anticipate voter registration packets in the mail, and then sign and return them.  However, it included no information about the date of the election, early voting or same day voter registration, and was placed to many residences where voters were already registered.  The message did not cite Women's Voices Women's Vote's involvement or provide a call back number.  You can hear a recording of the message here.

Chris Kromm at the Institute for Southern Studies has an exclusive report about the controversy. 

The report is all over the blogosphere and has been linked to at Daily Kos , Talking Points Memo, Politico , and America Blog .

Kromm writes:

"For such a sophisticated and well-funded operation, which counts among its ranks some of the country's most seasoned political operatives, such missteps are peculiar, as is the surprise expressed by Women's Voices staff after each controversy.

In at least two states, the timing of Women's Voices' activities have raised alarm that they are attempting to influence the outcome of a primary.  As we reported earlier, in Virginia, news reports surfaced the first week in February that prospective voters were receiving anonymous robo-calls telling voters that they were about to receive a voter registration packet in the mail."

Here's what Bob Hall at Democracy NC said about it before and now: 

"The reports from other states are very disturbing, especially the pattern of mass confusion among targeted voters on the eve of a state's primary," Democracy North Carolina's Bob Hall tells Facing South. "These are highly skilled political operatives — something doesn't add up. Maybe it's all well-intended and explainable. At this moment, our first priority is to stop the robo-calls and prevent the chaos and potential disenfranchisement caused by this group sending 276,000 packets of registration forms into North Carolina a few days before a heated primary election. We need their immediate cooperation."

Here's a clarification about how voter registration actually works in North Carolina put together by the Center for Voter Education.


The Worst Form of Government…

This past weekend at the Full Frame Film Festival there was an amazing film about democracy and China.

The film, Please Vote For Me , is about a class of third-graders in central China who are introduced to the concept of democracy when elections for their class monitor are instituted.  (The class monitor is endowed with significant power, including the management of nap and snack time and the punishment of “misbehaving” fellow students so its a very important position).  

Three students are chosen by the teacher to be the candidates and campaign season begins.  Though respectful to each other at first, campaign tumult quickly ensues as the students and their crafty parents use insults, bribes, lies, promises, gifts, and negative campaigning to try to gain an edge in the competition.


One child (at his parents’ suggestion) distributes gifts to all of his fellow classmates on Election Day.  Another candidate promises appointments and privileges to all the students that support him and openly taunts and harasses his opponents.  The three candidates are subjected to talent shows, debates, and speeches, and spend hours perfecting their performances and making lists of their opponents’ faults. 

And in the end the democracy experiment doesn’t produce a different or beneficent result.   The incumbent candidate who bought all the students presents and had been appointed class monitor the previous year wins the election.  The status quo is maintained, and the class is left in turmoil as all the losers and all of their cronies burst into tears.  Democracy has taught these kids to become more aggressive, more individualistic, more manipulative, and more cutthroat. 

Of course, class elections in schools are often brutish and painful, and they do tend to bring out particularly personal and egotistical aspects of competition. 

But they’re also not so far off from how the “real system” in the the "real world" works.   

In our democracy the pursuit of power is often ruthless, the candidate who spends the most money usually does win, and money does buy significant influence.  Some politicians use bribes and false promises to win elections and many leaders are disingenuous and sanctimonious.  And some "democratic systems" don't result in the public good or a robust system of representation.

Of the many lessons to take away from "Please Vote for Me" (including a wry recognition of the pitfalls, absurdities and limits of democracy), the most important one for me is what it takes for a democracy to work and function.  It doesn’t happen on its own and it doesn’t happen easily.  Meaningful democracy is a constantly adapting, always difficult process that requires substantial investment, infrastructure and education. 

That is, democracy done cheap produces cheap results.  Without education efforts to inform voters about who they’re voting for, without a civic context to understand how the process works, and without rules and regulations on campaigning, gift-giving and fundraising, democracy produce less than optimal results.

It is mighty difficult to create a system that is at the same time self-representative and free from the corrupt influence of money, demagogy and complacency.

The third-graders in the film were given no context or basis to understand the history or purpose of democracy.  The experiment was thrust upon them suddenly and unexpectedly.  And they responded like most of us would to a game we were told to win: by doing anything and everything we could to succeed.  The kids weren’t told they couldn’t buy gifts, take the class on field trips, or heckle opponents during their speeches, so they did.  And in the end, the student who bought the class the most gifts and most aggressively attacked his opponent won.  What's the lesson learned there?

Though in the U.S. system there are some campaign finance limits, civic education efforts, and laws enforcing access to the ballot (i.e. some rules and regulations), many of the problems of our democracy are uncannily similar to the ones in the third-grade classroom.

In the United States, billions of dollars are spent by thousands of special interest groups every four years.  Millions of voters are effectively disenfranchised by arcane ex-felon laws, arbitrarily early registration deadlines and ID requirements, continued racial intimidation, and de-funded voting infrastructure.  Our public media is under-funded and our press is in the hands of too few for-profit conglomerations.  And some of our best leaders can never run for office because there’s not a public financing option available for most races.

But this isn't the way it has to be.  We CAN achieve universal voter registration, full enfranchisement, meaningful limits on money in politics, and real public ownership of elections through publicly financed Voter-Owned Elections.  And we can take our democracy back. 

Let’s hope that China becomes more democratic, and that this third-grade experiment is a harbinger for reforms to come.  But let’s also hope that China doesn't emulate our system to the point that they replicate America's money-driven system and long history of voter-suppression.

In the end no matter how good the system, and no matter how many checks and balances are put into place, democracy will always require constant care, attention, and love.  It will always need public commitment and vigilant watchdogs.

It will always be, as Winston Churchill argued, “the worst form of government except for all those other ones.” 

But if done right and done with enough public investment and management it’s a worst form of government worth fighting for.