Fear of Failure Helped Fuel Obama's Record Fundraising

Barack Obama, shown yesterday in Tampa, raised $150 million in September, more than three times what any other presidential hopeful has raised in a month.
Barack Obama, shown yesterday in Tampa, raised $150 million in September, more than three times what any other presidential hopeful has raised in a month. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Unease about lingering tensions within the Democratic Party and worry that an Internet drive would underperform infused Sen. Barack Obama's campaign with an urgency that led to the most voracious one-month fundraising drive in American politics.

The result -- a $150 million haul that was more than three times what any other presidential candidate has raised in a month -- prompted aides to Republican Sen. John McCain to question whether his rival is trying to "buy the presidency."

Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, predicted that Obama's spending edge in the final two weeks of the campaign would be about $100 million -- an advantage already obvious to television viewers living in any one of a dozen closely contested states.

Obama's record-breaking month is primarily a story about the explosive fundraising power of the Internet, and the expanding role of regular people in financing modern presidential campaigns. But it also underscores the importance of the powerful and well-connected, who accounted for about a third of the money that poured into Obama's coffers. Raised in $2,300 increments at VIP receptions, that money remains a foundation of the fundraising effort.

A review of the Democrat's schedule shows that he dramatically ramped up the pace of his high-dollar fundraising events in September, such as the Barbra Streisand concert that helped him raise $9 million in a matter of hours.

The campaign also dispatched a team of surrogates that included billionaire Warren Buffett, former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin and Caroline Kennedy, all of whom could tap Rolodexes full of contacts who could write large checks. By September, the finance team had booked Obama's running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose ties to the trial lawyer community helped unlock the support of donors who had backed other candidates in the primary.

Obama's finance team entered September uncertain whether the month would deliver the money needed to compete with McCain, who would be able to combine $84 million in federal money with donations collected by the Republican National Committee.

(New federal filings showed McCain spent $37 million in September, leaving him with $47 million for October.)

Some in Obama's camp remained jittery about absorbing finance team members from Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's primary campaign. And even though the Obama operation had compiled an e-mail list containing as many as 9 million names, some fundraisers had reservations about a strategy that banked so heavily on Internet donors whose giving was impulsive and event-driven.

A series of meetings led to revised fundraising targets for members of Obama's National Finance Committee. A decision was made to significantly expand the senator's September fundraising schedule, even though he needed additional time to prepare for debates and barnstorm through swing states. At minimum, the theory held, the major-dollar fundraising would serve as a hedge if the Internet drive sputtered.

"The big question was: How would the online stuff do?" said Kirk Wagar, a Florida lawyer and member of Obama's finance committee. "We had heard this from everyone in the campaign, it wasn't a secret, that the Internet money is event-driven. We were sitting there in June and July realizing this may be a heavier lift for us."

The finance committee learned of the revised targets in a Denver hotel ballroom, as members gathered for the Democratic National Convention. "We looked at what we had to do in our regions, and they were pretty Herculean goals, no doubt about it," Wagar said.

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