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Obama's small donor base image is a myth, new study reveals

November 28, 2008 |  8:02 pm

Democrat President-elect Barack Obama gazes into the future

Everybody knows how President-elect Barack Obama's amazing campaign money machine was dominated by several million regular folks sending in hard-earned amounts under $200, a real sign of his broadbased grassroots support.

Except, it turns out, that's not really true.

In fact, Obama's base of small donors was almost exactly the same percent as George W. Bush's in 2004 -- Obama had 26% and the great Republican satan 25%. Obviously, this is unacceptable to current popular thinking.

But the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute just issued a detailed study of Obama's donor base and its giving. And that's what the Institute found, to its own surprise.

"The myth is that money from small donors dominated Barack Obama's finances," said CFI's executive director Michael Malbin, admitting that his organization also was fooled. "The reality of Obama's fundraising was impressive, but the reality does not match the myth."

Adding up the total contributions from the same small individuals (in terms of dollar amounts, not their height), the Institute discovered that rather than the 50+% commonly....

...reported throughout the campaign, only 26% of Obama's contributions through last August and only 24% through Oct. 15 came from people whose total donations added up to less than $200.

The key word there being "total."

It comes down to which definition of "small donor" you accept:

Someone who donated to the Obama campaign by scraping together $199, period.

Or someone who donated $199 to the Obama campaign several times, perhaps totaling close to the $4,600 legal limit for the primary and general elections. In aggregate, that would vault him/her out of the small donor category that was so useful to the political campaign's public relations campaign portraying the donor base as about two times as broad as it really was.

The reported numbers show that Obama actually received 80% more money from large donors (those giving $1,000 or more total) than from small donors.

Through the Democratic National Convention, the Institute estimates, Obama received $119 million from genuine small donors, an impressive sum, to be sure.

But not as impressive as the $210 million he'd raised by then from bundlers and large donors.

"After a more thorough analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC)," the CFI study says, "it has become clear that repeaters and large donors were even more important for Obama than we or other analysts had fully appreciated."

Now, we'll see how broad-based news coverage of this real reality is.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credit: Associated Press

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