The other US election myth: Obama’s fundraising base

As the dust settles and the hard numbers start to become available, it increasingly looks as if key parts of the grand picture painted during the US presidential election were wrong. This picture – of unprecedented interest by ordinary people in the election – was repeatedly illuminated with stories of record numbers of people voting and donating.

We already know that the voting story is largely myth, with turnout looking like it will come out up just 1% on 2004. It also now looks as if the picture of record numbers of people donating was misleading because, far from being driven principally by a huge army of small donors, Barack Obama’s campaign received pretty much the same amounts of money from small donors as previous campaigns and, whilst he did receive large sums in small donations overall, he also received large sums in medium sized and large donations too. His fundraising success was across the board, rather than fuelled particularly by an army of small donors.

The difference between donations and donors

The crucial piece of evidence hinges on the difference between donations and donors. An analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute of the data available so far shows that Obama’s campaign did receive an unprecedented number of small donations – 49% of its money came in donations of $200 or less, compared with only 32% of George W Bush’s 2004 campaign. But many of these donations were from people who donated repeatedly. As a result, only 26% of his funds came from donors who in total gave $200 or less, a mere 1% up on Bush’s 2004 25% figure.

The big difference came in the middle-range donors, that is those who ended up giving between $210 and $999. These gave 27% of Obama’s funds, compared with 13% of Bush’s. The big end donors, those who gave $1000 and up, contributed 47% of Obama’s funds, down markedly from Bush’s 60%, but still nearly half.

In other words, whilst Obama’s campaign did bring in huge numbers of small donations, his fundraising success came as much from big donors and bringing in repeated donations building up to middle-range totals as it did from having a large army of small donors. There’s a lot of myth about.

What does it matter what the truth was?

In one sense, this doesn’t matter, because whilst having 47% of funds coming from large donors is high, it is still so much lower than other presidential campaigns (including McCain’s 59% and Kerry’s 2004 56%) that it points towards a political future in which political influence is more equally shared, and not just dominated by large donors.

But in another sense, it matters very much – because it means those looking to draw fundraising conclusions from Obama’s campaign are missing the true picture if they think it’s all a matter of using the internet to build a large army of small donors. Obama also had huge success at bringing in money from large donors, and in turning initial small donors into repeated givers. Not that many of them though migrated up to become big donors; the big donor fundraising was largely a separate group of people.

It is a three-pronged approached that is the lesson: small one-ones, regular small donations and large donors that brought in the money for him. Across all three of these areas he had success. This was a campaign fuelled by funds from all sources, not just an army of one-off small donors.

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