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

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

Comments () | Archives (260)

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And lets not forget the 200 million in undocumented donations that came in as well, or as I like to say, unmarked bills.

Why do you not list the total number of donors and compare that to the numbers for George W Bush? I suspect that you have these numbers and don't want to release them because they don't help the ridiculous and pathetic case you are trying to make.

Keep digging, Andrew, America isn't done burying the Republican party.

I was one of the first to donate to Obama's presidential campaign - on the night he announced - and whether there were lots of big donors later on or not, at the start it was little $25 and $50 guys like me who got him off the ground, and I'm damned proud of it!

Joe Shea
Bradenton, Fla.
formerly of Hollywood

Boy, when I read a phrase like "great Republican satan," I know that I am reading an objective analysis of the data. Perhaps a more honest analysis would have reported two more of the CFI's findings:

1) That the result for small donors was a percentage finding, and that the number of total donors (and thus small donors) was much higher for Obama than Bush;

and 2) that Obama had a significantly larger percentage (and number) of donors who fell in the $200-$999 range than did Bush (27 pct. to 13 pct.)

Come on; you write for the LA Times. I expect better.

Considering the mess this country is in right now and that I'm one of the little people, I don;t give a d-m where the money came from if B Obama can pull it all together and give our country back to us.

Nice try, Andrew. No banana. A five-figure donor is a "large" donor in the minds of most of us. Someone who gave $500 or even $1000 in $100 donations spread over the extended length of the campaign is only a "large" donor in a small mind that is trying to make a case that won't be made. You also miss/skip/ignore another rather crucial aspect-many of us who gave $500-$1000 in $100 or smaller increments had NEVER given to a political campaign before. We're not "professional supporters" OR large supporters. But we made a difference.

Well, your article is not fair. Though I was a Clinton supporter, the fact that you are looking just at percents is misleading. My understanding is that the total number of small donors Far Exceeded any previous total number of small donors to a presidential campaign and Obama raised more money than any other candidate as well. His critics can keep complaining and trying to spin things, but his impressive support from many poorer people and first time donors speaks for itself.

meet the new boss -


I figured it out. "Alessandro Machi" and "Andrew Malcolm" both have A.M. as initials. I don't know which one is real, but either way, you are both losers.

Wow impressive! You managed to note that percentage was about the same... would it not be fair to say what the absolutes were? It is in those numbers that you will see an unprecedented AMOUNT of money given in small donations, rather than a percentage of the total given.
You can play with math all day and try and fool people, or you can get business done. Get a real job!

The fact is that Obama raised more money than anybody else. Don't try to maginalize that historic fact. Get over it. Let's talk about the economy stupid.

If his percentage were the same as George W. Bush's four years earlier, but the amount took in was much higher. That means that the number of "small donors" was also much higher.

Yes, there was a lot more excitement for Obama than for previous candidates. He is a promising individual and I think we will see that America is better off after four years than it is now. And I didn't even vote for the guy!

The mythology of the small person contributor is only another example of the obamanites re-framing reality to suit their purposes. And do you people believe that this will end with the campaign? They have too much at stake to not force feed their propoganda for the next 4 years or beyond. This was one reason I would not support him during the primaries or after. I see danger in this person. He is much more like Nixon and bush, than the foolish portrayals of him being like FDR/Lincoln.

I consider myself a very small donor, and I contributed more than $199 over the course of the campaign. I donated in $100 increments, and I did have to scrape up the money.

It was the first time I'd donated to any campaign--that's a figure I'd like to see--how many first-time donors did Obama attract?

I had to laugh--it turns out I'm not a "small donor!"

My husband and I scraped together every penny we could, to donate to Obama over a period of eight to ten weeks.

We stopped going to restaurants (e.g., McDonald's). We pledged a no-gifts Christmas for each other (= NO Xmas shopping then or now). We turned our thermostat down to 58 degrees at night, 62 tops in the daytime.

One $50 or $100 gift at a time, we contributed a total of $2000 (two thousand dollars) to Obama.

And now families such as ours are being used to give the entirely wrong impression that we don't count as "small donors!"

Way to go Myth Buster Andrew. Keep the facts coming.

And to Nimrod above perhaps if you read more closely instead of hyperventilating about invisible plots you could see sentences like this from the article, "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%."

Just like a magicians slight of hand, people are focusing on the wrong issues, per usual. The magician gets your attention and focus (over here) while they dupe you (over there). Obama is the current 'elected' magician-in-chief. Good job, voters, by the time you figure out the many 'smoke and mirror' tricks beset on the United States of America, it will probably be too late to fix.

I think the better way to determine the stats is to ak if these were ONE TIME donors or mulitple repeated donations by an individual over an extended period as the article says........ TOTAL.

This isn't shocking to anyone who has been following Obama's rhetoric - it's about as centrist as any establishment puppet can get. Brack Obamuel is a Wall Street-funded sock puppet who is filling the administration with a bunch of insiders. Who did Goldman Sachs fund in this race? Who is robbing the American people in broad daylight?

My wife and I gave small amount of money to Obama 15 times and ended up giving almost $2,000. We consider ourselves small donors. The headline and premise of this story is misleading.

For goodwill Americans this is like finding half a worm in an apple you just chewed a bite off. Voters will barf even more when all the other putrid and
cancerous Chicago political ploys and tactics employed come to light.Expect gaffe-prone Biden to give us some juicy clues and hints even prior to
inauguration of the Sorros puppet.

Actually, as someone trained in some economic and statistical analysis, I think you failed to persuasively argue your contention.

You claim that Obama's fundraising was NOT "dominated by several million regular folks sending in hard-earned amounts under $200". But then you cite that "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."

But this is not surprising at all. You are defining a small donor as someone who gives between $0.01 and $999.99 and a large donor as someone who gave between $1,000 and $4,600 (the maximum limit). Then the average small donor might have given $500 (halfway between $0.01 and $999.99) and the average large donor might have given $2,800 (halfway between $1,000 and $4,600). We know these numbers are made up, and we can find out the actual numbers, but we can use these numbers for some quick thinking.

Using these numbers, the large donor average is 5.3 times larger than the small donor average (i.e., $2,800 divided by $500 is 5.3). If, for every small donor there was exactly one large donor, then Obama's contributions would have been 15% from small donors and 85% from large donors. It's simply that large donors give much more than small donors and stating that 80% of his money came from large donors is something that is bound to happen if small and large donors are in equal proportion and even if small donors greatly outnumber large donors, simply because the large donors give so much more money.

It would be far more instructive to look at the DISTRIBUTION of contributions to the Obama and Bush campaigns. What proportion of Obama's donors gave the maximum $4,600 for the primary and general elections (or the maximum $2,300 for just the general election) and is that higher or lower than Bush's? Also, how many people gave money to Obama and how many people gave money to Bush, using ABSOLUTE numbers, not RELATIVE frequencies?

I do not know what these answers are but stating these numbers would be far more instructive as to who received a broader base of support from small donors. It also would be instructive to compare Obama's donor base to McCain's. I suspect that McCain's donor base is extremely skewed, with proportionally less small donors and more large donors than Obama.

The numbers you did cite refute your argument to some extent. You said that through the DNC, "Obama received $119 million from genuine small donors", while he raised "$210 million...from bundlers and large donors." The ratio between $210 and $119 is 1.76, which is far lower than my guesstimate that if there were equal numbers of small and large donors the ratio would be about 5.3. This implies that, during the primary, Obama DID receive considerable support from small donors that was in FAR greater proportion than previous candidates.

We all know it is far easier to cherry-pick a couple of statistics to make an argument than to argue persuasively using numbers. You contend that "Obama's small donor base image is a myth." It may indeed BE a myth, but your argument failed to support that contention and even introduced some numbers that might be used to refute it.

I'm not as concerned with how much individuals gave -- I don't see how that affects anything -- I'm more concerned with whether our president now owes favorable treatment to industries or other constituencies, with the tacit threat of reduced fundraising next cycle if he doesn't do what they want. And Obama, by refusing lobbyist dollars and making the bulk of his money through individual online contributions, seems to be the least indebted to special interests of any modern president. Obama doesn't need any special interest group to get fundraising and get elected. And that should be the real goal of any campaign finance reform.

This analysis misses the point.
Tens of thousands of people like myself typically are "small donors", in that we are not wealthy and typically make small contributions to campaigns -- $ 50 here, $ 100 there.
Yet, this campaign was so important, Obama was so impressive, and the primary season was so drawn out that whoosh -- I guess I became a large donor. Blocks of $ 100 and $ 200 donations exceeded $ 2,000. Any analysis of giving has to take into account the phenomenon of middle class "small" donors who were so motivated to exceed this small $ 200 limit under which this study made them into large donors.

Huh! I'm a large donor for breaking the 200 dollar ceiling. WHo'd a thunk it?

Smarmy Andrew Malcolm that's who.

Yet another hate piece shilled by the AP. Keep it up.

The fight against conservatism will never end. FIGHT these people. FIGHT them with money, fight them with words, and never let their nonsense go unchallenged. They will destroy America if good people stand silent against the right wing hate machine.

This study is one of the most dishonest and idiotic pieces of garbage I've seen since the ones the tobacco companies came out with the studies that claimed cigarettes won't kill you.

I'm one of those "big donors" who went over this arbitrary $200 limit. I'm not poor, but I'm certainly not rich, either. Unless I have a rich uncle I don't know about who dies and leaves me his fortune, I'll never come close to the $250K limit where Obama's tax plan would hit me.

I personally know of several people who are in the lower-middle income bracket but contributed to Obama over a period of many months in amounts of $10 or $25. Several of them have said they made a small donation every time the media lied about Obama, so they ended up donating plenty despite their modest incomes.

The campaign is over, so I'll have to find another worthy cause to donate to in response to this "big donor" lie the media are breathlessly spreading around now.

I haven't checked but over the course of Obama's campaign I gave $25 dollars here and $50 there. I'm guessing the total was probably close to $300, maybe a bit more. So this would mean I don't fit in as a "small donor". My further guess is that many more people were enthused enough about Obama that they ended up going over the $200 "small donor" limit than was the case with Bush in 2004.

In addition, its stated that "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.". Well shucks, last time I checked $1,000 is 80% more than $200. So if you had 100 people who donated $200 and 100 people who donated $1,000, the latter group would have donated 80% more evn though their numbers are equal. And for some folks parting with that $200 was a bigger investment than some folks $1,000.

Until the FEC breaks down the figures into finer statistics, i.e.; how many gave $200, how many gave $400 etc., there isn't much of a story here.

I don't have the precise figures in front of me (you can look me up however), but I gave just under $250 to the campaign. Trust me when I say that I am no fatcat. I gave my donations in mostly $25 chunks at various times in primaries and general election because I truly thought it was most important thing I could do with my money, while I cut back in many other areas of my life and gave a lot less to other important causes, sadly.

Am I a large donor?

My strong suspicion is that CW-drunk writers like Andrew Malcolm just want to find a way to make that old, outmoded wisdom work by redefining the facts down to meaninglessness.

The once great L.A. Times should be ashamed for publishing an article that leaves out most of the key facts and creats a magical deviding line between $199 and $200 dollars, as if that is such a princely sum -- as if I'm now in a position for a struggling writer like me to ask Mr. Obama for some kind of favor or government job because I gave his campaign a couple of hundred bucks. Or, maybe they are trying to curry favor with me, as I have a t-shirt and bumper sticker to show for my giving.

I disagree with part of the premise. I gave the Obama campaign several small occasional donations -- $40 here, $50 there -- and, yes, those totaled more than $199. But I consider myself FAR from a large donor. Modest donations given when one was able? That's no myth.

Despite the "small donor" image that was marketed throughout the campaign, it seems to me the real issue is not who gave $200 vs. $2000, but how much of the money came from individuals vs. PACs and lobbyists. Or, how much came from individuals vs. bundlers. This seems a more useful way of looking at who really had influence over the process. Are these numbers available anywhere?

Oh, now the media wants to be fact-based and objective?

Let's hope Obama the man bears some resemblance to the heroic symbol built by projection and deception. The US needs significant, meaningful reform across the board - and Obama is now our President. Media reform is also required.

We've just elected a promising man with very limited experience. Perhaps he will turn out to be a great president - and we all hope for that to happen. But the media was so biased and our situation so awful that extreme scepticism seems quite rational.

You neocons will say and write anything to minimize Obama's accomplshments. Get over it and move on. The election is over, he won and this is a useless backward looking, non-story. I was a small donor who gave montlhy. I didn't have to be able to write $1000 checks, attend a $1300 a plate dinners, or add $2300 to a bundle to feel a part of his campaign. My monthly "when I had the money contributions" were treated as equally important and encouraged me to give more. Never before has any major candidate made me feel that my few dollars were enough or that they even mattered.

yeah, sure, except many many of us who happened to exceed the $200 limit did so $20 at a time. we still aren't the classic donors.

It is all how you twist the stats. To me- when you are talking about a total take of $687 Million (think that is in the ball park)- and a campaign that was 19 months long anyone who contributed less than 1/2 of the federal limit amount is a small donor.
I contributed just over $200- but it was in small increments - $20, $50, $100 (once) etc. I consider myself a small donor - & yet because my total was over $200 I am not counted as a "small donor".
$210 Million was raised by bundlers & large donors, and $119 million by people who donated under $200 but that leaves aprox.$358 million unaccounted for. How many of those people donated less than 1/2 of the Federal limit?
Bottom line is - this article does not prove that Obama's Small Donor Base was a myth, it just proves how easily statistics can be manipulated to seemingly support a story line.

This is truly an example of making statistics fit the story... Obama's campaign lasted almost 2 years, there fore small donors giving $25, $50,.. even $10 a pop each month would end up over this magic $200 mark. It takes a real stretch of the imagination to describe them as "large" donors simply because a monthly donation of $10 over 21 months accumulates to over $200 total.

But I guess if you want to, you can use any technicality to try to belittle the effort of millions of Americans.

These numbers are misleading. The way Obama fundraised will need to change the way we study campaign finance as well. Many of his donors were convinced to donate much smaller sums ($10, $20, $50). However, because the small donation had such a small impact the first time around, they were easily convinced to do this again (and again, and again, and again). This led initial micro-donors to wind up contributing over the $200 threshold. Someone could have donated $20 about once a month since October 2007, and wound up being over $200, for instance. There is no doubt that donations in small increments were a huge and important part of Obama's campaign. They were also integral to the most important time for Obama (pre-Iowa and the rest of the primary). A better study on Obama's contributions would like at the time frames of the small donations, and how the total sum of certain donors had aggregated over time. In effect what Obama did that changed the game of campaign finance was to turn the once-small donor into a larger donor. For Bush, he might have gotten 24% of his donors to give $50 (under the $200 threshold). But Obama took a lot of those donors and said "You can give me more." And they all said "Yes we can."

This is a pretty sad manipulation of the statistics.

Millions of people gave small donations that accumulated to larger amounts. They weren't bundled donations. They weren't single-check maximum donations. They were individuals, many of whom had either never given to a candidate before or who had never given very much, who responded to a harsh and ugly campaign by giving again and again. There is nothing comparable in this pattern to what we saw for GWB or John McCain.

Nor was the pattern of requests in any way comparable. I was a "large" donor to McCain in 2000. As a result, I got a lot of mail from the Republican Party in 2000, 2004 and 2008. They asked for much more, they expected me to have a lot more available to them, than any mail I got from Obama. Obama ran a race that focused around personal involvement of many, many people Bush did not.

I gave the Obama campaign a total of $600 throughout the primaries and general election.

I did it in incriments of no more than $50, and only gave when I felt he had earned it by impressing me, or his opponent did something that I disapproved of enough to compel it.

I was a small donor. I only gave small donations. Trust me, I'm not big money.

You can try and play semantics all you want, but I am not a typical political contributor. I am the small donor he got. I am one of millions. Trying to diminish what we did will not stop what we did, or stop us from doing it in the future.

But I really think it's pathetic that you feel the need to try anyways. This was democracy in action, this was passion from the people, and all you can do is try to destroy it.

And by the way, there's been inflation since 2004. Not only is 200 dollars an arbitrary line, it's an arbitrary line that *changes*.

Not only did Barack Obama go back on his word about accepting matching funds, his side then rigged the contribution system so people could make donations using fake names and addresses.

Actually investigating DonationGATE and challenging the Barack Obama camp would have meant reporters would not have been allowed access to Barack Obama and his jet.

Is this the way to run news? To be so afraid of losing access that the most obvious levels of fraud and deceit are actually spun into congratulations on spending so much money on a well run campaign?

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

Indeed. It is a little difficult to see much of a myth here. I donated less than $50 several times over the long campaign. I may have gone over $200 in total donations but certainly not over $1000. Donations that totaled less than $1000 were 53% of Obama's total according to the CFI website. And personally, the 53% seems even more impressive for two reasons. First, because it was a record setting number in and of itself. And second, because the success of small donations probably drove the large donations.

Myth? Only in that the interpretation got me to read the article.

As one of those small donors, I think that the study that says this is a myth is not taking a lot of things into consideration. My total donations exceeded the $200. but my original intent was to give the $25.00 I gave. I don't have money, I mean I really don't have money, but this election and Obama's win was so important to me that I ended up making a series of $5., $10, $15 donations over the course of the campaign. I scrimped on other things so that I could feel like I was giving to the campaign. I know many of my friends and family who did the same. I imagine there were hundreds, if not thousands who have similar stories. So, unless they are going to look at more than just the numbers, they shouldn't call this a "myth."

When will this study be buried? Please. The percentage of small donors is a hoax. This was the first year where the average person could make a donation (recurring) or $25 a month over the course of 20 months. Which would bring their total donation to $500 or more. This is about what they spent on their phone bill during the same time. It doesn't make them a large donor.

By this idiotic standard, I all of a sudden become classified as a "big donor," simply because my aggregated donations total more than $199, rather than roughly three times that amount that I gave. I certainly don't feel I'm financially in the same category as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, et. al, who ponied up the max $4600.

i think the total number of donors is very important. i made several small donations that ended up totaling at about $400. i don't consider myself a big time donor - i am a grad student in fact - and if the dem candidate were anyone besides obama i dont know that i would have donated any money.

So what is a small donor? I think the defining number in this study is too low to be meaningful.

My 92 year-old Godmother -- who is of modest means and not any one's idea of a fat cat -- felt so strongly that John McCain and the offensively ignorant Sarah Palin must not win the presidency (or our nation was doomed), that she donated $500 for the first time in her life. She donated in three increments - as did I and many other ordinary folks I know.

This study fails to consider how many, many ordinary people felt that this election, this economy, how inept our government agencies and departments have become (remember Katrina & Monica Goodling), the growing threat of Afghanistan and Pakistan (a nuclear power and perhaps the harborer of bin Laden and other terrorists), our global reputation, the plight of Palestinians and how that contributes to instability, and other matters so clearly beyond the Republicans in the last 8 years, was too important to risk. An analysis comparing the donations of individuals this year to their donations of previous years would put the issue of "small donor" and "motivated small donor" in better perspective.

We who donated perhaps $250 or $300, or maybe even $500, were small donors despite this study which does not ask, much less analyze the most compelling questions.


After reading this post several times I am still puzzled as too why anyone cares. A political campaign parsed words to make itself look better? What a shock! Why don't y'all stop hating and looking under every little rock in hopes of finding some terrible thing that will make Obama look bad? Get a life. Find real things to complain about. This "revelation" reveals little worth caring about.

It's so good to see the Media has nothing to talk about, So they make up stories to sell the news instead of report the truth the republicans try as they may to come up with anything they can to figure how Obama whip there butts, In all honestly (which is something a republican can never be is honest) GW bush got his money through large rich donors, that way he gave tax breaks to only the rich. right now you need to get your head out your butt maybe you can see better!!

This is a dumb article. The distinction between Obama donors who donate $199 or $4600 - like my wife and myself - is meaningless.

All you have to do is look at how much support Obama has. That's the real story. 69 million votes in a landslide, and still climbing. Why not talk about that instead?

Really? Let's see, % wise this may be true, but he had a lot more in absolute numbers. The other problem is that you exclude those who could afford to donate more over 2 years and chose to do so because they were so motivated. The real thing that "small donors" is standing in for is "middle-to-lower-class donors". But some of those could, if they wanted to, donate more than $200 in total. Unless we know how many of those there are, this identification of "small donors" is meaningless.

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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