Obama’s Small Donor Juggernaut More Myth than Reality, Report Shows
November 25, 2008 - 6:34 PMIt was widely reported that Barack Obama's historic presidential win was fueled by an army of small donors, often contributing $5 and $10, at an unheard of rate in American history, but a recent study shows that Obama's small donor base – and possibly reports of unparalleled youth-voter turnout – was more myth than reality.
The Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) study says that 26 percent of donors to Obama’s presidential campaign gave $200 or less, the definition of a small donation. That’s compared to 25 percent for President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.
Most of the contributions to Obama were from repeat donors or bundled donations, the CFI report says.
“The myth is that money from small donors dominated Barack Obama’s finances,” said CFI Executive Director Michael J. Malbin. “The reality of Obama’s fundraising was impressive, but the reality does not match the myth.”
The study shows that Obama received 80 percent more from large donors, defined as giving $1,000 or more, than from small donors. Meanwhile, 47 percent of his total contributions came from large donors, compared to 60 percent for his Republican opponent John McCain.
In 2004, Bush raised 60 percent of his campaign funds in large donations, while his Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry raised 56 percent in large donations.
News reports that seemingly overstated the power of small donations in Obama’s campaign are similar to those stories that reported young voters – ages 18 to 29 – mobilized in droves as never before to elect Obama as president.
However, the percentage of voters falling into this age category did not soar. There were 17 percent in that age category casting a ballot in 2004 compared to 18 percent in 2008, according to exit polling data from Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International.
The swing occurred in the margin of young people voting for the Democratic ticket, as Kerry beat Bush by nine points among young voters in 2004 while Obama trounced McCain by 34 points in that category, according to the exit polling data. A Fox News exit poll showed similar results.
“All this publicity about droves of young people that were sending him small contributions and it was a revolution in campaign finance was all a smokescreen to cover the fact that he was rejecting public funding, having said he would accept it, and he was taking large major contributions hand-over-fist,” author and former campaign consultant Dick Morris told CNSNews.com.
In total, Obama’s presidential campaign raised $452.8 million compared to McCain who raised $204.4 million.
McCain was constrained by the same public financing system used by both candidates in the 2004 race, which Obama opted out of this year allowing him to raise an unlimited amount. In 2004, Bush raised $256 million compared to Kerry’s $215.9 million.
Voter “turnout was only about 4 million higher, while as from ’00 to ’04 it grew by 20 million,” Morris said. “The big change was that the black percentage rose from 11 to 13. But other than that, it was essentially the same electorate.”
Post-election is a time to put things in context, said Larry Sabato, director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Obama “did clean up with small donations, but he did even better with big donations,” Sabato told CNSNews.com. “Small contributions rolled in, because there was more money overall. It’s like the other comparison. There were more young voters, but there were a lot of people voting.”
However, Sabato warned that exit polling data are not precise. Based anecdotally on the campus activism he saw for Obama, Sabato thinks the youth vote might require further research.
“I was bowled over by the degree of activism. Often the non-college population is not factored in,” Sabato said. “I question whether they were as involved, and if that is what brought those numbers – if they were indeed down.”
The CFI study also showed that mid-range contributions to Obama’s campaign surpassed but were still quite comparable to other recent presidential candidates. Obama raised 27 percent of his money from people whose contributions were between $201 and $999.
McCain raised 20 percent from similar donations. In 2004, Kerry raised 24 percent of his donations in the mid-range category, while Bush raised 13 percent.
The CFI report concludes by not dismissing the sums Obama raised. “The fact is that Obama’s financial juggernaut broke records at all contributions levels. The reality does not match the myth, but reality itself was impressive.”