Headed for the Small Time

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One of the interesting peripheral stories on the presidential campaign has been the innovative online donation strategies of candidates like Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Ron Paul to recruit small donors to their effort. This Los Angeles Times story talks about what that shift in strategy has yielded for Obama, and what it means for a move away from traditional big donors politics.

Make no mistake, high dollar donations still account for the bulk of money flowing the presidential campaigns, but in offering small donors a sense of ownership in the campaign, Obama has become the fundraising frontrunner:


"There is no question that Obama's fundraising is a huge breakthrough," MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser said, estimating that his organization's donors have given at least $500,000 to Obama. "Clearly, he has hit this nail on the head in a way that no one has before. He has given people a real sense of ownership that makes them want to chip in."

Obama raised $27.2 million in donations of $200 or less in 2007, compared with Clinton's $11.6 million, Federal Election Commission reports show.

Measured another way, half of Clinton's donations earmarked for the primary campaign came in increments of $2,300. By comparison, one-third of Obama's money arrived in $2,300 chunks, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.

[. . .]

Obama's base of small donors provides benefits besides money. It has become his source of activists. Cheever has an Obama bumper sticker in the rear window of his 15-year-old Ford pickup. He plans to spend part of Saturday, his 38th birthday, making phone calls for Obama in advance of Hawaii's vote Tuesday.

I think this is illustrative of the real hunger many Americans have to get involved in the process, feel like they are invested in a campaign and a candidate, and that the candidate is invested in them. The traditional big money model of fundraising -- still dominant, despite these recent advances -- doesn't incentivize outreach to $10 or $25 donors. This move from big money politics, to small donor involvement and activism, sets the stage to advance a Clean Elections public financing model for federal elections. Clean Elections encourages the involvement of small donors, makes candidates accountable to them, and invites involvement in politics and elections by people who have long been shut out.