Obama’s Small Donors: Slow, or Perfectly Normal?

by Joshua Tucker on September 28, 2011 · 1 comment

in Campaigns and elections

We are pleased to welcome Adam Seth Levine of Cornell University with the following guest post in response to the recent NY Times story on Obama’s small donors and his 2012 re-election race:

This weekend the cover page of The New York Times featured an article entitled Small Donors are Slow to Return to the Obama Fold. While many observers hailed Obama’s 2008 campaign as an indication of a “small donor revolution”, a key question is whether small donors will continue to be a growing element of modern campaigns.*

The article begins to address this question by noting that many of the people who made small donations to Obama’s 2008 campaign have not yet donated to his 2012 campaign. The author interprets this as saying that Obama is having difficulty with an important group of 2008 supporters, and is thus losing an important source of fundraising (not to mention other forms of support, such as potential volunteers). Yet, to draw this conclusion we would need to find a difference between present fundraising numbers and expectations based on past performance.

A comparison to past campaigns (including 2008) provides little empirical evidence that donations have differed in size or timing during this early phase of the current election cycle. Almost all major-party candidates for President have relied heavily upon large donors for their early fundraising. For example, consider fundraising data from January – September 2007 in the following table. All candidates with the exception of Ron Paul relied extensively upon large donors during this early stage of the campaign:

It is only later in the campaign – once the candidates had gained visibility, communicated their message, and established a greater sense of electability (and large donors had already given the maximum allowed under federal law) – that the data tell a different story. For example, from March through May 2008, Obama raised 63% of his funds in amounts of $200 or less. Clinton reported a similar distribution, raising 61% of her money in these smaller amounts during this time. McCain, however, only raised 23% in these smaller amounts during these latter primary months.

The upshot is that we should not be surprised that small donors are “slow” to return at this early stage of the 2012 race. In fact, I would argue that their behavior is not “slow” at all, but instead perfectly normal. At this point we cannot conclude anything about possible fundraising challenges down the line. To be sure, Obama has incumbency status that he did not have in 2007, and that could certainly affect donor behavior. But, at the same time, Obama has not really gotten his campaign off the ground yet. He has not yet had the chance to exert substantial effort in defining the choice facing voters and trying to gain a perception of electability. When it comes to small donors, the “challenges” he faces are not unlike those that he and others faced in 1999, 2003, and 2007. Small donors evidently take a wait and see approach. It is thus far too early to see what comes of the donors in the NYT’s story, and more generally the 2008 “small donor revolution”.

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* By “small donor” I am referring to the common usage – someone who donated in small amounts that were less than $200. Note, however, that many small donors gave enough small donations during the 2007-2008 campaign such that the total was quite large.

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