As the news continues to flow in about how much money various presidential and congressional candidates are going to report for their third quarter, keep an eye out for their claims of how much they are raising from small donors versus big donors.
Thanks to online activism through blogs, social networking sites, and email lists, small donors are giving more campaign money than ever before. That's the good news.
The bad news is that it's quite likely that when all the reports are filed and the numbers are tallied for the 2008 election, big donors will still dominate.
The biggest increase in the number of small donors has been in high profile presidential and congressional races. But these online activists can't afford to be everywhere all the time, and in 2006, big contributions of more than $200 accounted for three-fourths of the individual contributions to Senate races and 80 percent of contributions to House races. Small donors are on the rise but given the exorbitant amount of money candidates are being forced to raise, they still aren't the ones whose support is most essential to winning.
The way to enhance the importance of small donors is to keep soliciting their support --but also to work toward changing the system. In states that have full public financing of elections, or Clean Elections, small donors are the ones with clout.
In Arizona, where Clean Elections has been available to candidates since 2000, small donors play a large role in influencing campaigns. The number of donors to gubernatorial campaigns increased more than three-fold from 1998, when elections were all privately financed, to 2002, when the public financing option was available. The $5 qualifying contributions collected by gubernatorial candidates in 2002 came from a more geographic and economically diverse group of donors than did the smaller number of larger private contributions that financed candidates who chose not participate in the Clean Elections program.
More importantly, with Clean Elections candidates are able to spend more of their time talking with all voters about issues instead of spending their evenings hobnobbing with the wealthy elite at cocktail parties and gala dinners. When elected to office, these candidates can focus on the needs of all constituents and not just their high end campaign donors and big money bundlers.
It's heartening that presidential candidates are touting their small donors, but until we use public campaign financing to make the system about voters and volunteers instead of donors and dollars, those able to write the maximum checks allowable by law will still have the upper hand in picking our elected leaders.