The Influence Industry: Some campaigns point to donor numbers over dollars

As the deadline for second-quarter donations approached last week, President Obama’s reelection campaign sent out a Twitter message suggesting that the amount of money raised wasn’t important.

“We’re measuring this campaign’s strength in people, not dollars,” the tweet read. “Help us meet our goal of 450,000 grassroots donors.”

Deputy Editor, National Politics View Archive

The message illustrates an increasingly popular metric for measuring the power of a political campaign: donors over dollars.

This is particularly true for Obama, whose 2008 victory was won in part by his pathbreaking effort to attract millions of contributions of $200 or less. The many-donors route is also crucial for insurgent Republican candidates such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who in the past has raised most of her money from small contributions.

Some of this is pure spin, of course. In Obama’s case, a focus on smaller contributions obscures the fact that, unlike other recent presidents, he is bringing in as much as $35,800 each from wealthy donors in a joint fundraising effort with the Democratic National Committee. And it’s not clear that Bachmann has much choice, given that corporate executives and Wall Street bundlers are more likely to donate to an establishment GOP candidate such as Mitt Romney.

Nonetheless, all the talk about grass-roots donors shifts the conversation, at least for a time, away from the all-important question of who will bring in the most cash.

“From our perspective, these are the kind of donors that are really healthy for our democracy,” said Mary Boyle, communications director for Common Cause, which advocates for campaign finance regulations. “It’s people who are clearly not expecting something in return. . . . It’s a good metric of grass-roots support.”

Small donors — often defined as those giving less than the Federal Election Commission’s $200 threshold for disclosure — have long played a marginal role in national political campaigns, which typically rely more heavily on wealthy bundlers and corporate political action committees.

Obama’s 2008 campaign broke that mold, in part by taking advantage of the Internet to encourage impulse and repeat donations. In the primary and general elections combined, Obama raised about $180 million from donors giving $200 or less, a far larger total than previous campaigns, according to research from the Campaign Finance Institute.

Yet that hardly accounted for most of Obama’s cash: Forty-eight percent of his total came from donors giving $1,000 or more, with the remainder in between, the data show. He did not accept corporate PAC money.

Obama advisers are pushing to encourage small donors again this year, including offering contributors who give $5 or more a chance to win lunch with the president and vice president.

The campaign said it had nearly 500,000 individual donors in the second quarter, compared with 180,000 in the same quarter of 2007.

“Making a small donation to the campaign usually doesn’t stop there — it increases the likelihood that you will engage your network on behalf of the president, make another donation as the campaign proceeds, and organize your friends and neighbors to turn out in the run-up to Election Day,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “We work to translate online numbers into organizational strength.”

On the Republican side, two presidential candidates stand out for their reliance on smaller donors: Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), whose chances are slim, and Bachmann, a tea party favorite who has surged in recent polls.

Eric Ostermeier, a research analyst at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said Bachmann raised more than 60 percent of her money from January 2010 to March 2011 from contributors giving $200 or less. That’s particularly remarkable considering that she was the leading House fundraiser in the 2010 cycle, raising more than $13 million.

Ostermeier, who runs the “Smart Politics” blog, said Bachmann’s reliance on “Ma and Pa” donors from around the country will be pivotal in her bid to take on Romney, who has assembled a formidable list of wealthy bundlers. (Bachmann’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

“It’s viewed as untainted money,” Ostermeier said. “She’s hardly getting any money from PACs or big donors, and that helps her come across as a candidate of the people. It’s to her benefit.”

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