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Leveraging Strength: Comparing Obama and Clinton's Donor Numbers

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As Arianna Huffington ably documents, the story of the first quarter Democratic presidential numbers is not one of dominance by Hillary Clinton, but the extremely strong showing by Barack Obama. Almost 30% of Clinton's reported money for the quarter was transfered from her Senate account, which means that it was raised before she was officially a candidate (no one should have deluded themselves that donations to her 2006 Senate reelection campaign were really about the need to save HRC from Jeanine Pirro). And as Arianna notes, the Clinton camp is delaying the release of information about how much of Clintons 1st quarter totals is earmarked for the general elections. Without doubt, Clinton's $26 million raised this quarter is going to shrink further in terms of what she can actually use in the primary, which should be the only thing candidates are worrying about now.

Obama has not yet released his official numbers yet, but the word is that it's going to be somewhere in the $20-23 million dollar range. At minimum he has kept pace with Clinton and it's conceivable that once Clinton's general election donations are purged from her number that Obama will have exceeded her fundraising for the quarter. I'll leave aside how remarkable that is for a moment, though.

Both Obama and Clinton are hyping the number of people who have donated to them. Obama had 83,531 donors and Clinton received money from 50,000 people. John Edwards, who I'm going to otherwise ignore in this post, had 40,000 contributors. Given the close proximity between Obama and Clinton's total fundraising numbers for the quarter, the fact that Obama had two-thirds more contributors shows a far greater reliance on donors who didn't max out this quarter. That is, his supporters are more likely to be able to donate repeatedly at smaller levels. Obama's baseline donor support is more likely to be sustainable than Clinton's based on this quarter's evidence (and assuming neither candidates' donors decide to switch their support elsewhere).

But what most interests me is the relative success Obama and Clinton had activating their personal donor databases -- people that alreadywere a known part of their campaigns' fundraising universes. The New York Times recently reported that Clinton has over 250,000 people in her database and Obama has 78,000. Without knowing the breakdown of how many of the contributors were known to each candidate, we can still get a sense of how their campaign is churning out donors with the help of their list. The difference is stark. Obama had 7% more donors than he had in his donor universe, while Clinton's total contributors for this quarter is dwarfed by the size of her fundraising database.

Despite the incompleteness of the data pertaining to new versus old donors for each campaign, there are three things that I can take away from this.

First, Conventional Wisdom says that one of Hillary Clinton's largest advantages in this race is the fundraising institution that is Brand Clinton. 250,000 names, spurred on by Bill Clinton, was supposed to be the catalyst to annihilate the Democratic field. That didn't happen. At minimum Obama kept pace with the volume of donations and was at no institutional disadvantage this quarter with regards to the size of his fundraising database. Quite the opposite -- he had more contributors than names in his universe.

Second, either Clinton's fundraising strategy involves spacing out how they tap their database or the donors in the database simply are not there for her in overwhelming numbers. Since Clinton's strategy stretching back to her 2006 Senate campaign has been to find victory through shock and awe with the volume of her war-chest, I find it unlikely that the Clinton campaign's aim was to space out their 250,000 donors over the course of the primary. That's not to say that they went to every single person on their list and asked them to max out, but I'd wager they've gotten more "nays" from donors than they expected (and still walked away with either the number one or two quarterly total for Democratic presidential candidates ever). An early ask reflects a valuation of importance of a donor and Clinton wants her donors to be in love with her now before they get wooed by anyone else.

Third, Obama's smaller database has proved far more fecund than Clinton's. Clinton leveraged around $100 per name in her fundraising database, though that's based on the primary and general election number, so with regard to the primary the effectiveness is further diminished. If we assume Obama is in the $20-23 million range, then he leveraged $250-300 per donor in his database. Now that's not to suggest that Clinton had more small donors than Obama -- we know that he outpaced her by thousands of donors in that category. What this really tells us is that Obama's success was not dependent on his database. While a campaign wants to have a grassroots base that lowers its average donation, it wants to have its total universe produce high numbers (i.e. if someone can give up to $2300, how much of it are they giving?). Lower numbers in the dollar per database entry ratio is bad - it means that a campaign's knowing who people are is not being transitioned into those people giving the candidate money.

Matt Stoller thinks Clinton's vaunted database of donors isn't what it's cracked up to be. "That she didn't release those numbers may actually suggest real weakness because it means that her network is tapped out." I buy Stoller's logic, but we'll find out if he's right in less than two weeks.

Obama did something truly remarkable this quarter -- keep pace with the Clinton machine and in many respects outperformed her. The lack of a fundraising institution didn't hurt Obama this quarter and he'll be better prepared to leverage his growing database in the next one. But that's the key, this analysis only holds for this quarter and is by no means indicative of what will happen next. The Clinton donor database remains large and could still be leveraged to smite any opposition that comes its way. One quarter is not nearly enough time to declare the Clinton fundraising operation weak with regards to turning institutional strength into dollars earned.

At some point soon the conversation may have to shift from being about how Obama kept up with the Clinton behemoth to how the Clinton institutional machine kept pace with the Obama phenomenon. As the Clinton campaign moves forward, though, they must be worried about next quarter as well. Traditionally big donor fundraising drops off after the first quarter as that's when most people max out their contribution. The story for second quarter fundraising may well be about the rise of the Obama machine and the fall of Clinton.

Matt Browner Hamlin regularly blogs at The Right's Field, Emboldened, and My Left Nutmeg.