WASHINGTON -- In the age of super PACs, campaign entities that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money, gone are the days when a broad fundraising base was needed to launch a serious campaign.
Instead, candidates can rely on a small group of incredibly wealthy friends, who need only to write the checks for an eager consultant to run political ads. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's primary campaign underscored both how much damage a super PAC can inflict and how much salvation one can provide. A New York Times report about a prospective $10 million ad campaign to tie President Barack Obama to his fiery former pastor, meanwhile, illustrates how one deep-pocketed donor could shift the balance of a presidential race.
But that narrative is not entirely complete. While super PACs are overwhelmingly fueled by the political whims of the very well-off, a sliver of their funding comes from small contributions. Those donors have no illusions that their money makes a tangible difference: if anything, it's more like a drop in the lake than a drop in the bucket. But they give anyway -- sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of custom, and sometimes out of a desire to partake in a bit of partisan warfare.
"It made me feel like a revolutionary war mother, throwing a tin plate and a couple of cheap rings into the molten metal for the cannon balls," said John Boyd, an Albuquerque lawyer who gave $250 to the Obama-allied Priorities USA Action in April.
Boyd is one of a select few donors who have acted on that urge. Priorities USA Action has raised a total of $7,898,000 from individuals and corporations this cycle, according to a review of campaign finance records. Of that, only $93,895 has come from contributions of $250 or less, which means just 0.88 percent of the super PAC's donations came from small-dollar donors.
The breakdown for its Republican counterpart is even more pronounced. Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has raised $55,628,000 from individuals and corporations so far this cycle. Of that, just $6,874 came in the form of contributions totaling $250 or less -- just 0.012 percent of its total.
Getting those donors to talk, it turns out, is not easy. The Huffington Post reached out to more than 30 individuals who gave $250 or less, either to Priorities USA or Restore our Future. Few had any desire to comment on their contribution.
Justin Copeland, a legal assistant at Bates Carey Nicolaides LLP in Michigan, said he couldn't discuss the $25 donation he made to Restore Our Future in late February over his work line. So he offered up his cell phone number and a time to call during lunch. He subsequently ignored two follow-up calls.
Timothy Rizzo, a real estate agent in Philadelphia who gave $25 to Restore our Future, said his response was "no comment." He also requested to be put on a "do not call" list.
When The Huffington Post called the number listed for Nicholas Moskowitz, a Virginia resident who gave $25 to Restore our Future, a man picked up and said he didn't want anything to do with the story. He then hung up. A follow-up call was met with a similar fate.
Even the small-time super PAC contributors, it turns out, don't like scrutiny. But not everyone was so reticent.
"We are by no means big donors," Adam Merrill, an attorney at Sperling & Slater who supports Romney, said of himself and his wife. "I'm a lawyer and we sit in our lunch room and talk about super PACs. ... I was curious because I knew there was no coordination. I thought it was weird that I had never gotten solicited by the super PAC. I thought maybe I wasn't on their list or radar."
So he decided to bring the radar over to him. In February, Merrill gave $100 to Restore Our Future without ever receiving a solicitation. He knows his contribution doesn't stand up to the checks exceeding half-a-million dollars that the super PAC routinely receives. But he still had some expectations.
"I thought I'd be invited to really cool parties and get emails and other info about what the super PAC is doing," he said. "And I have got to tell you, there was nothing."
Super PACs, it turns out, have little need for small donors like Merrill. It is far more cost-effective for them to convince one sympathetic billionaire to donate a small percentage of his or her fortune than to build up the type of small-donor base that could net them an equivalent amount of cash. Email lists cost money. Encouraging positive response rates to email solicitations takes time. And with super PACs rushing to pour as much money into the 2012 campaign as they can as quickly as possible, neither the former nor the latter are in large supply.
"We don’t discuss donors or donations," said Brittany Gross, Restore our Future's spokeswoman.
Bill Burton, a senior strategist and founder of Priorities USA, was more game. "While it’s no surprise that the majority of our donations are high-dollar, the smaller, middle-class sized donations mean a lot too," he said. "There is a warm place in our hearts for people who see what Mitt Romney and Karl Rove are doing and decide they want to get involved with $50 or $100 contributions."
Small-dollar donors came from all walks of life. An academician in upstate New York gave Restore our Future $10; a bartender from Washington, D.C. gave Priorities USA $200, and a student pilot in Enid, Okla. gave Restore our Future $25.
With super PACs making virtually no effort to reach small donors, it's a wonder that those donors are contributing at all. But several of those interviewed said they'd been convinced to give by methods other than direct outreach.
"Bill Maher," said Charlene Cerny of Santa Fe, when asked why she wrote a check for $250 to Priorities USA in late April. "He was the one who influenced me."
An executive director at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, Cerny said she was won over by the HBO host's much-replayed rant saying that Democrats were too dismissive of the super PAC funding disparity they faced. (Maher himself gave Priorities USA $1 million.) She had been planning to contribute to the DNC or the Obama campaign. Instead, she found Priorities USA online, made a donation, and got an email back expressing thanks and telling her that the contribution was not tax deductible.
"That was the end of it, which was delightful," she said.
Others didn't need a comedian to motivate them to give. A newspaper article sufficed.
"I read about it in an article in the Wall Street Journal and it just kind of was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Timothy Davies, an employee at Okaya USA in Torrance, Calif., said of his $25 donation to Restore Our Future. "I looked at the website, saw some of the testimonials about what they are doing. Didn't look too much into it beyond that."
It was the first donation he's made to any political group or candidate in his life.
Andrew Bernstein, a National Accounts Manager at Comtel Group in Massachusetts, has given to candidates and groups before, including $50 to Romney this cycle. But when it came time to give again, he was skeptical that the Republican National Committee would use his money effectively.
"I think Karl Rove is smarter than anyone at the RNC," he explained. And so, he went fishing for a super PAC that matched his political mindset. A $25 donation to Restore Our Future was the result.
"Not much," he said, when asked what kind of impact he thought his check might have. "But I think if a lot of people give 25 bucks that will help ... It is one thing to believe in it. It's another to be part of it."
While super PACs legally must operate independently of campaigns, the technical distinction is lost on some donors. Russell Marks, an engineer in Michigan, barely remembered donating $25 to Restore our Future. He said he didn't really distinguish between the super PAC and the Romney campaign, given that the end result of his contribution would likely be the same.
"In particular, I just wanted to support Romney," he said.
New Jersey attorney David Perry Davis, however, said his $200 donation to Priorities USA was meant as a statement of dissatisfaction with the president -- from the standpoint of a disaffected progressive. Davis said he viewed his contribution as a way of "donating without putting my seal of approval on the things [Obama's] done."
Or failed to do: One of Davis' main gripes was the president's refusal to push for a single-payer health care system.
"Everything I give will be to a super PAC, because Republicans are worse than Obama. So super PACs are going to concentrate their attacks on the Republicans. I hope they do a good enough job that I don't actually have to go vote for Obama in New Jersey," he said.
So too does Obama, and Burton.
Curious about the bigger donors contributing to super PACs this elections cycle? Look through the slideshow below for a list of who's who: