Commentary: Small donors coming up big for Obama

The Sacramento BeeOctober 3, 2012 


Dan Morain is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

SCOTT LORENZO — MCT/Sacramento Bee

For a billionaire like Sheldon Adelson, who gives $5 million at a pop to super PACs, people like Shirley Peters, a retired child protective services worker living in Fresno, ought to be incredibly annoying.

Peters and hundreds of thousands like her are helping to bankroll President Barack Obama in the final 37 days of the 2012 campaign by giving him $10, $20 and $50.

With its Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court created a new era of unlimited campaign contributions. Las Vegas casino mogul Adelson, oilmen Charles and David Koch and a handful of other multimillionaires and billionaires are giving huge sums to super PACs to elect Mitt Romney, and help Republicans retain control of the House and take over the Senate.

Obama and Democratic candidates benefit from rich donors, too. But Obama in particular is capitalizing on small donors to raise money. Shallow pocketed donors responding to email fundraising pitches are using mouse clicks to challenge the Adelsons and Kochs in this campaign.

Peters, 77, donates regularly to Obama's re-election, giving $8 to $20. She knows it's not much, but she makes ends meet on less than $3,000 a month, while helping to care for her mother, who is 96, and a granddaughter.

"I hear about all the money that the Koch brothers give," Peters told me by phone. "I'm not going to be one of the people who sits back and is apathetic."

Obama probably is generating less enthusiasm among voters this year than in 2008. But you cannot discern that by looking at his small donors.

By law, federal candidates must disclose donors who give more than $200. Obama has 445,00 of those larger donors, to Romney's 187,000.

But overall, Obama has 3.1 million donors, a list built up over the past five years. Although Romney has been running for years, he did not expand his small-donor base until recently. He claims 1.1 million donors

By the end of August, Obama had raised $147 million from donors giving $200 or less, 34 percent of his total take from individuals who gave through the primary season. At the same point in 2008, he raised $121 million from them, 30 percent of his total, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C.

The institute reports that Romney, by contrast, raised $39.5 million from micro-donors, or 18 percent of the total from individuals who gave to his primary campaign.

There are different ways to count campaign money. One is to look at super PACs, which accept donations of unlimited size. Another is to consider joint-fundraising committees established by the presidential candidates and political parties, which can raise individual donations of as much as $75,800.

Then there are the candidates' own committees. That's where Obama has an advantage. At the end of August, Obama had $88 million in the bank, to Romney's $50.4 million.

In the last days before the election, campaign managers need to be agile, deploying candidates and their surrogates quickly in the right places, buying ads where they will have maximum impact and, most importantly, turning out voters.

"You cannot depend on some other organization doing that for you," said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute.

Fancy fundraisers in Beverly Hills or Hillsborough draw big bucks. But they come at a cost, and not just in the money it requires to pamper high-rollers. Every day candidates spend prospecting for $5,000 checks in California – a state Romney will lose by 20 percentage points – is one less day that they spend in the swing states of Ohio, Florida or Nevada.

Major donors obviously are important. But once a donor gives $5,000 to a candidate, they are barred by federal law from giving more to that candidate. Besides, the number of people who give $5,000 is tiny – 13,239 for Obama in this campaign, and 12,190 for Romney.

Obama can and does go back to his micro-donors repeatedly; few will ever reach the $5,000 cap. The cost of sending email appeals is negligible, and they're written by aides, allowing the candidate to stump for votes.

The fundraising emails are chatty, chummy and constant. One arrived in Shirley Peters' in-basket last Sunday about the "last Dinner with Barack of this campaign – and I don't think you should miss it."

The email offers hyperlinks urging donations of anywhere from $14 to $250 or some other amount.

We're counting on you, Shirley. … Chip in $14 or whatever you can to automatically be entered again to join Barack for this last dinner."

Thank you,


Sherrill Brooks, 82, a Democratic activist in Grass Valley, gives $10 when she gets an email from the Obama campaign, and they come often. She gave $10 six times in July.

"I don't like to say 'no,' " Brooks said. "I really wish I could give more, but I have a very limited income."

Elections turn on which campaign can mobilize its base of voters, and small dollar donors help with that. They not only give money. They volunteer and push their friends to turn out.

Charlotte Brothwell regularly gives Obama $25, $35, whatever she can. She wears her Obama T-shirt, has an Obama bumper sticker on her car, and whenever she has time, she goes to the Obama campaign office in Sparks in the swing state of Nevada.

"I'm 75 and I don't walk the streets. But I can certainly make phone calls," said Brothwell, who retired from the Redding schools in 1994 and moved to Nevada with her husband, Robert.

Brothwell knows she can't compete with billionaires. But she used to be active in the union that represents California school employees and understands collective action.

"It is a true form of democracy if the masses get together," she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that Congress cannot restrict huge donations to super PACs. Big money will flow unobstructed into the political system. There is, however, a way to reform the campaign finance system without government involvement.

People like Peters, Brooks and Brothwell are leading the way by giving a little and it adds up to a lot. No pundit will be surprised if big money wins on Nov. 6. It often does. But the sound of the mouse clicks is getting louder. It might become a roar.


• 368,000 donors have given President Barack Obama between $200 and $999. That's 83 percent of the 445,028 donors who have given $200 to $5,000.

• 110,354 donors have given Republican candidate Mitt Romney between $200 and $999. That's 59 percent of the 186,988 donors who have given him $200 to $5,000.

• 57 percent of Obama's money came from donors giving $999 or less in the 2008 campaign.

• 68.4 percent of Obama's money has come from donors giving $999 or less in the 2012 campaign.

• 36.2 percent of Romney's money has come from donors giving $999 or less in the 2012 campaign.

• 13,239 donors have given Obama the maximum $5,000 in direct contributions – $66.2 million – or 15 percent of his total receipts.

• 12,190 donors have given Romney the maximum $5,000 in direct contributions – $61 million – or 22 percent of his total receipts.

• $432.2 million raised for Obama's re-election campaign.

• $274 million raised for Romney's campaign.

Source: Campaign Finance Institute, Federal Election Commission

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