Barack Obama’s Fundraising and the Small Donor Myth

New numbers

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Barack Obama got his campaign money through tapping a huge small-donor network, right? Mmm, maybe not.

The Campaign Finance Institute released a new study that tallied "small donors," whose repeated contributions made them medium- or large-size donors. And the study—partially—punctures the myth of the small Obama donor. And it leaves a couple of questions unanswered.

The study found that 49 percent of the contributions Obama received were for under $200; this is the number underlying the claim that Obama had a revolutionary number of small donors. (The like figure was 32 percent for John McCain, 37 percent for John Kerry, and 31 percent for George W. Bush in 2004.) But the study also shows that the percentage of donors giving a total of less than $200 was not dramatically different from that of McCain, Bush, or Kerry.

To wit: 26 percent of Obama donors gave a total of less than $200, which is only a hair more than the 25 percent who gave that amount to George W. Bush in 2004. (McCain: 21 percent, Kerry: 20 percent—I wonder if going further back, one would find a correlation between "winning" in this category and winning the popular presidential vote.)

Obama distinguished himself in the medium- and large-donor categories. Donors totaling $201-$999 accounted for 27 percent of Obama donors (McCain: 20 percent, Kerry: 24 percent, Bush: 13 percent) and donors giving a total of $1,000 or more made up 47 percent of Obama's patrons (McCain: 59 percent, Kerry: 56 percent, Bush: 60 percent).So, good for him in that regard.

But here's the unanswered question: How many of Obama's donors, particularly the ones who gave small contributions that added up to a medium- or large-size pile of cash, had ever given money politically before? In other words, to what extent was Obama activating a previously uninterested group of political donors?

And here's another one, tangentially related, that I flagged a month ago: Why didn't the Obama campaign more carefully monitor the donations it did get? Like I said, it's only tangentially related, but it should still be asked until an answer is forthcoming.