WASHINGTON -- The new campaign finance playing field that was created when Barack Obama refused public funds for his general election campaign in 2008 was expected to favor candidates who could milk big donors for all they were worth. In the 2012 race, with both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney refusing public funds, the candidates have certainly hauled in big donations, but the surprise has come in the money from small donors.
In raising money from those giving less than $200, Obama is a major league slugger while Romney is still waiting to be called up from the minor leagues. And that has made an enormous difference to the campaigns' bottom lines.
Small-donor contributions make up nearly all of the Obama campaign's fundraising lead over the Romney campaign. Obama for America, the official campaign committee, has raised $157 million more than Romney for President through the end of August. Remove the small donors, and that lead shrinks to only $14.7 million.
Romney's campaign has been unable, either because of the candidate's lack of a strong connection to his party's base or because of the inadequacies of its online and direct mail efforts, to raise these small contributions in anything close to the same numbers. Obama has pulled in $189 million from small donors, while Romney has received a comparatively tiny $46.7 million.
Money raised by the candidate's own campaign committee is far more useful than funds raised by party committees, super PACs or nonprofits: Candidates have full control over the former money and receive discounted advertising rates, allowing their dollars to go further than those of a super PAC or a party committee. Broadcast television stations are also required to sell the candidates airtime, meaning that in the closing weeks before the election, a candidate's ad could pre-empt a super PAC ad.
The small-donor numbers refute a theory about the 2012 Obama campaign, promoted by many reporters and pundits, that the Obama campaign had bled small donors since 2008 and faced a significant enthusiasm gap this year that would impede its fundraising. Early in Obama's reelection run, the Associated Press speculated, "The weak economy, lack of a Democratic primary challenger and no clear front-runner in the Republican field may delay or prevent small donors from opening their wallets, strategists say, forcing a greater dependence on wealthy contributors for a re-election campaign that could cost more than $1 billion."
The actual fundraising figures never backed that theory. At no point in the past two years has the 2012 Obama campaign trailed the 2008 Obama campaign in money raised from small donors. The current campaign raised $189 million from small donors through August, compared to $159 million by the 2008 campaign over the same time period. (Actually, the 2008 campaign's total covers a longer period because it launched two months earlier than did the 2012 campaign.)
In a February Huffington Post article, Obama digital director Teddy Goff said that the campaign's successful small-donor operation is driven by individuals who feel connected to the candidate and his policies. "These are people who feel emotionally invested in something bigger than themselves," said Goff.
Small-donor efforts have also been aided by an ongoing series of contests in which those giving as little as $3 can win a seat at the dinner table with the president and first lady Michelle Obama or at fundraisers hosted by celebrities like actors George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker and hip-hop first couple Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Another major small-donor initiative has yet to show up in the official reports the campaign files with the Federal Election Commission. During the Democratic National Convention, the Obama campaign ran a fundraising drive to obtain 600,000 online contributions by the end of the week. The effort surpassed 700,000 donors. This success heralds possibly another broken record for monthly fundraising.