For the first time ever, presidential candidates have managed to turn small donors into their greatest funding source, sending signals that the small-donor revolution — a mere experiment by Howard Dean just four years ago — has officially arrived. In February 2008, according to a Campaign Finance Institute analysis of the latest official campaign receipts, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) raised 56 percent of his contributions in increments of $200 or less, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) raised 52 percent in similar amounts.
But this February was the first time the much-celebrated small donors of these campaigns exceeded the halfway mark in overall receipts. And looking further down the ballot, there is little sign that the small-donor revolution is taking root. In Congressional politics, the world of small donors is decidedly smaller.
February’s presidential numbers reveal some key, unrevolutionary trends. First, the gains were notably lopsided between the parties. While both Democrats in February raised a total of $30.5 million from these small donors, Republican candidates, overall, collected only $5.1 million from the same group. Arizona Sen. John McCain brought in a mere 20 percent from donors who gave $200 or less.
Second, large donors are still a significant part of the overall take. Even in February, CFI reported that donations of $1,000 or more were 22 percent, 25 percent and 67 percent of the Obama, Clinton and McCain campaigns’ contributions, respectively.
It also is too early to say whether the small-donor welcome mat will stay out very long. In January, CFI research shows that 46 percent of Obama’s $36 million and 35 percent of Clinton’s nearly $20 million came from contributors donating $200 or less. McCain raised 24 percent of his contributions ($2.6 million) from these small donors. Who’s to say February’s numbers weren’t just a spike in the enthusiasm surrounding Super Tuesday?
More critical, however, is whether this small-donor frenzy spills over into the hundreds of far less visible Congressional campaigns that lack the fanfare of national change. CFI reports that Democratic and Republican Senatorial candidates are collecting just 6 percent to 22 percent of their funds from small donors. In total, in 2007, donations of $200 or less were a mere 17 percent of all Senate contributions and 27 percent of House-raised funds.
Congressional incumbents, predictably, have the highest reliance on deep-pocketed donors. Pre-
election-year fundraising comparisons reveal that incumbents in 2007 took in six to seven times more money from large donors (giving $1,000 or more) than from contributors in the $200 or less category.
And Congress is where concerns about the influence of money on politics should be most acute. Last session, Congressional ethics scandals sent two Members of Congress to jail for influence-peddling, and there have been three additional indictments of lawmakers thus far, as well as five Members who reportedly are still being investigated by law enforcement. In Alaska, state-level scandals made one of the most senior Members of the Senate, Ted Stevens (R), the target of a federal investigation. And it may not be over yet. Notorious super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is, according to the latest press reports, still cooperating with investigators.
So, despite the rise of a small-donor democracy, contribution limits still very much matter and are likely to matter for some time to come. The soft-money ban in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 deserves much of the credit: By prohibiting corporate and union contributions to political parties, BCRA pushed candidates to reach out more broadly for individual support.
Rep. Bill Cassidy has his blood drawn by Alesha Barbour during a free hepatitis screening in the Rayburn House Office Building hosted by the Congressional Viral Hepatitis Caucus to recognize "National Viral Hepatitis Testing Day."
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