Campaign Finance–Breaking the Grip of Big Donors

February 20, 2008

Small Online Contributions Add Up to Huge Fund-Raising Edge for Obama



CHICAGO — A cluster of cramped cubicles, tucked away in a rear corner of Senator Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters here, serves as the heart of a fund-raising machine that has reshaped the calculus of the 2008 election.

Mr. Obama’s finance director, Julianna Smoot, who has helped him raise more than $150 million so far, does not even have her own office. A Ping-Pong table is the gathering spot for Friday lunches for her team.

The setting, which has the feel of an Internet start-up, is emblematic of how Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has been able to raise so much money. On Wednesday, the Obama campaign will report to the Federal Election Commission that it collected $36 million in January — $4 million more than campaign officials had previously estimated — an unprecedented feat for a single month in American politics that was powered overwhelmingly by small online donations. That dwarfed the $13.5 million in January that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is expected to report Wednesday and the $12 million Senator John McCain’s campaign said he brought in for the month.

. . . The details of Mr. Obama’s January fund-raising illustrate just how much his campaign has been able to chart a new path for the presidential race. He brought in $28 million online, with 90 percent of those transactions coming from people who donated $100 or less, and 40 percent from donors who gave $25 or less, suggesting that these contributors could be tapped for more. (Donors are limited to giving $2,300 per candidate during the primary season.) More than 200,000 of the campaign’s nearly 300,000 donors in January were first-time givers to Mr. Obama.

. . . Although he earns less than $20,000 a year as a storyteller in public libraries and as a freelance writer, he decided to give $25 on top of a few small contributions he had made dating to March 2007.

“The campaign has been so incredibly grass-roots, it does sort of feel like you are making a difference,” Mr. Lane said, “even in giving in small increments like that.”

And this month, after the Feb. 5 primaries, Mr. Lane decided to tack on another $25 donation.

–read entire article–


Without getting into the question of which candidate does or does not deserve our support–a strictly personal issue at the most basic level of our democracy–it seems that the Obama fund-raising technique may have broken us loose from big donors. Big donors, as we all complain, come with big expectations and we would prefer our presidential (and all other) candidates as donor-obligation free as possible.

Campaign finance laws have, for the most part, been a miserably ineffective encouragement to that failed hope.

Now comes the cry from John McCain (whose coffers are woefully underfunded compared to the Obama war chest), calling on Barack to honor his early commitment to accept public financing in the general election if the Republican nominee did the same. That’s $85 million each for the two months after the conventions.

That puts Obama, with a clear advantage financially, in an interesting position and one for which I have a suggestion. That proposal of mine–the Freeman Election Finance Agreement (FEFA)–accepts the logic that this election’s supplicant may be next election’s hard-ass. Money, we have more than enough evidence to posit, supports the Golden Rule of gold and rules. It’s not a dependable resource.

Thus, as you no doubt breathlessly anticipate my FEFA proposal, I suggest to Barack that he accept McCain’s reminder of his earlier pledge and abide by public finance under one condition. That, restless reader, is the condition that the presently sitting Congress, in a bi-partisan commitment to future election cycles, enact into law the present public funding guidelines.

Forever (if not longer).

$85 mil to each and every team for the final push–sign on Hillary and Mike, John and Barack and shove it down the congressional throat.

Until the conventions, it’s open season.

But what Obama may have proven is that the Howard Dean theory of Internet financing has now been proven into law. The little guy rules and he rules by huge numbers. John Doe makes the case, with his $5 and $25 donation that Big Pharma and Big Oil and Big Wall Street can no longer tie a candidate’s hands–to shove them into the Oval Office bound and gagged.

What John Edwards railed against as a candidate has been broken by other means–unexpectedly, small-time America grabbed the reins and Big Money may never hold us hostage again. It’s the Century of the Little Guy, from Islamic fundamentalists to the average American voter (AAV).

The SUV is out, the AAV is in. You saw it here first.

Think of the implications for a Congress, clearly in the thrall (and payroll) of lobbyist interests. Senator Flushbucks may no longer be unstoppable in a bid for a seventh term. Representative Blingster might actually find himself up against a candidate with an online following. The Internet, that false promiser of future this and impending that, harbinger of lost promises to come, may actually deliver democracy to a nation in sore need of it.

So, I think Barack ought to call McCain’s bluff. But it would have to be a roll-call vote in both houses of the Congress, so we can see who the nay-sayers might be.

That, Mr. Obama, is how to get back out in front of this issue.

* For more in-depth articles by Jim on Washington at Work, check out

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