Small donors vs. big money in 2012

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President Obama at a 2008 campaign rally.

Greg Wahl-Stephens/Associated Press

The Democrats’ courtship of big-money campaign backers to help re-elect President Obama in 2012 could test the loyalties of small-dollar donors who texted, tithed, and turned out in 2008 to bring change to the White House.

“I’m less likely to give,” said Laska Nygaard, 40, of St. Paul, Minn., who voted for Obama and gave his campaign $75 in 2008. Back then she was determined to put a Democrat in office and there “was a feeling among everybody who is a little folk like me that if we’re working at it, and putting our little dollars together, we could get something accomplished.”

Nygaard, a non-practicing attorney, wife and mother of two children, said that she and some of her friends now think they might be smarter to donate their small sums to “effect some kind of change” in their community instead of worrying about national candidates and Washington. Despite Obama’s achievements to date, he does not appear “motivational enough and tough enough” to defeat GOP policies or to overcome the campaign finance advantages she expects Republicans will tap.

“There is no way I can go up against mighty corporations,” she said. “It seems like a tsunami of money.”

Obama’s campaign team has made no secret of its concern that without significant help from wealthy and influential Democratic donors and independent groups, Republicans will dominate in fundraising. This is partly due to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that independently funded political communications by corporations and unions are protected under the Constitution.

Obama’s outsider bid for the Oval Office was built on a promise that the voices of average Americans would overcome the well-funded “special interests” in Washington. That message — and the Internet — helped the Obama campaign raise 24 percent of a record-breaking total of $746 million from individual donations of $200 or less. During the hard-fought primaries, small donors — who do not have to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission — were responsible for 30 percent of Obama’s individual contributions, and helped the candidate make the case that he had grassroots backing and the momentum to win.

Obama’s team perceives the challenges posed by voters such as Nygaard: against a backdrop of high unemployment, voter angst, and the Democrats’ loss of seats in Congress, the incumbent president may simply be unable to reignite the enthusiastic and idealistic support he once attracted from first-time and low-dollar donors.

The president’s re-election team will “need to rely more on the large givers and raisers,” predicted Peter Buttenweiser, a bundler from Philadelphia who raised more than half a million dollars for Obama. “I think they will need [to get] more help initially from the larger contributors and fundraisers because I don’t think they have as lively an Internet presence as they did before.”

Some donors want off e-mail list

By Election Day 2008, the Obama campaign had gathered more than 13 million e-mail addresses. But since then, some of the small donors in that database have asked the president’s political arm, Organizing for America, to delete their names to free their inboxes from the endless outreach.

One was Amanda Geno, 30, of New Haven, Conn., who said OFA’s relentlessly cheery and generic e-mails during the president’s first year seemed too “disconnected from reality.” Obama might win her back in 2012, Geno said, if he repairs his “message problem” and if the campaign explains in detail what supporters helped accomplish.

In concept, Geno believes a small donation to any candidate, such as the $50 she gave Obama in 2008, becomes an important “way to show your participation and show your ownership stake at the same time.” But 2012 may spark debate about who owns the campaigns and what’s really at stake. “We live in a country in the wake of Citizens United, where I don’t think a person’s donation can make a difference,” Geno added. “It’s so scary.”

Campaign finance experts said it is too early to predict the involvement of small donors in the next election. “With the Citizens United decision, we are really left with the following world of campaign finance: It is small donors vs. corporate spenders, big givers and bundlers,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan organization that supports campaign finance reforms.

Without a contested primary, Obama’s grassroots donor support could shrink compared with 2008, while Republican candidates could experience an overall surge in smaller contributions from a motivated electorate.

Three factors to watch: First, GOP presidential contenders can match Obama’s Internet savvy, allowing them to pursue small donors more easily. Second, the 2010 mid-term elections foreshadowed the impact that Tea Party activists can deliver by raising money on their own for favored GOP candidates. And third, small donors could make a difference in 2012 because the GOP extended its primary calendar to give presidential candidates with less money and low name recognition more time to compete.

Colby College professor of government Anthony Corrado said that what made 2008 a notable year for small donors was the overall amount of money they contributed to Barack Obama’s election, plus the campaign’s use of the Internet to capture it. “When you talk about small donors, you’re talking about ideological donors,” he added. “They give because of what they believe in.”

Obama raised astounding sums from small donors, but like others before him, he still relied on large donations. His campaign in 2008 and George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 were close matches when it came to the percent of low-dollar contributions they raised from individuals, Corrado noted.

Small donors want to be asked

According to political scientists, small donors open their wallets when the costs of participation are not high, but the incentives are perceived to be. And in most cases, their participation hinges on being asked to help. That’s why the Internet is important for campaign fundraising in any dollar denomination, and especially for bringing in low-dollar contributions.

For every individual discouraged about big money in politics, there will be others in 2012 who will decide that every donation, including the tiny ones, can make a difference in a race. The breakthrough idea from the Obama campaign in 2008 was the invention of a social network that gave supporters a reason to become activists while roping family and friends in as part of a team.

“Any candidate who ignores the interconnections between small donors and mobilization will be a fool,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan campaign finance think tank.

This could be an election in which Republicans make that connection and take it to the next level.

Retiree Eldon Marsh, 74, of Universal City, Texas, wants a Republican in the White House and said in an interview that he could be moved to contribute as much to defeat President Obama as to support an opponent, whoever that may be. In that way, a small donation becomes an early vote and a form of protest.

Marsh gave about $150 to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 but said he was disappointed when McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate.

“It’s going to be a damn expensive campaign and no minor contribution is going to win it,” he said. “But if you sit back and are silent, you have no room to gripe.”

Harold Michael Harvey of Atlanta said Citizens United should be a call to action for people who want to impact the 2012 elections, with money and time. He gave Obama $150 in the last cycle.

“If you are a small donor in this election cycle, you’ve got to do more,” Harvey said. “You’ve got to put in a little elbow grease and get out there, pound the pavement, canvas communities, and help out that way to get out the vote.

“The money is not going to be enough.”

iwatch used American Public Media’s Public Insight Network to help report this story. You can help inform our investigative reporting by adding your expertise to the Network.

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