Campaign Finance 2012: Buddy, can you spare a $1

While 2008 held the record for election fund-raising – 6 billion in total, Obama’s bid for President has long been hailed as the benchmark of social media success.  Through the power of engagement, he electrified his supporters and was able to collect a record-breaking amount of campaign contributions – over 6.5 million, 6 million of which were in increments less than $100, creating a new category of donor called “micro-donors.”

According to Ellen Weintraub and Jason Levine, in addition to the historic choices that voters had in 2008, the Internet, innovative use of social media, and the diminished use of the public funding program all contributed to the record breaking campaign money raised.

Obama Campaign 2008 Wordle

 “Obama (and Howard Dean before him) weren’t successful because they understood computers, they were successful because they understood how to make technology harness the passion of their supporters”- Republican Strategist Mark McKinnon

Obama had a plan.  His team harnessed the power of the Internet and employed a strategy that grew along with his momentum.

Weintraub and Levine hail the benefits of the Internet acknowledging that it makes it easy for candidates to send invitations to participate along with reminders, track “bundler” contributions, encourage individual donations, and push their message.  The Internet also makes is easy and quick to attack an opponent and respond to criticisms or snafus.

The Obama team also measured engagement with their supporters.  They analyzed, tested and continually improved to fix any weak links and ensure they were using the most effective messaging.  They took “new media” seriously and made sure that they had solid content that engaged, conversation that was authentic, and built communities that were data-driven and nimble allowing them to keep the momentum going and take advantage of communication blunders by the competition. In the end, Obama had over 3 million individual donors which equated to a much broader voice representative of the general population.

The public funding program, created as a way to safeguard against corruption, was not used by McCain, Obama or Clinton. The ability to raise money from individual contributions far outweighed the bureaucracy of pulling funds from this source.

Weintraub and Levine ask if Obama’s “extraordinary fundraising success can be duplicated by other candidates?”

Super PAC spending by week. Source: Center for Responsive Politics.

I think the answer is yes.  However,  the 2012 election most likely will create a new fundraising record due to the creation of Super PACs.

Super PACs, created as an outcome of the 2010 Supreme Court’s landmark ruling of the Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission court case, contradict the goal of the public funding program.  Super PACs, while they are not allowed to donate to a candidate directly, are able to raise an unlimited amount of money to advocate for or against a political candidate.  [Traditional PACs have limits on how much they can give to a candidate.]  This has caused huge concerns for the democrats who have resisted the Super PAC money and many of which are against the Citizen United ruling.

Donation request from Obama/Biden 2012.

While Obama continues to reach out for the smaller donations, he also is asking his staunch supporters to contribute to the Priorities USA Action (a newly created Super PAC for democrats) perhaps signaling a concern that fundraising is falling behind.  Super PAC dollars for Romney have been steady and significant.

2012 Fundraising Dollars. Source Center for Responsive Politics.

The fundraising dollars clearly show that Obama has not slowed down in his ability to woo his supporters.  Likewise Romney, the presumptive GOP candidate, is extremely successful.

What can be said about the 2008 election is that candidates were transparent with the dollars.  In today’s climate, with the Super PACs, we have taken a step back.  Yes, donors contributing must be made public, but there is no limit to the amount that can be contributed allowing big bucks to over shadow more diverse, broad-base interests.  While “micro-donors” still play a role, the addition of the Super PAC money has set us back.

Leave a comment


  1. Clarifying: Obama raised $6.5 million from 3.5 contributors. Of these small contributions (micro-donors) – 6 million were in increments of less than $100. Obama raised about $500 million online – about $750 million in total.


    McCain took public financing for the presidential campaign

  2. How a campaign is financed – and how transparent that financing is – are critical to democracy. Linda’s discussion about Ellen L. Weintraub’s and Jason K. Levine’s “Campaign Finance and the 2008 Elections: How Small Change Can Really Add Up,” had great examples of what is supposed to be transparent but is in fact really hard to find, as well as what is transparent, but nobody seems to be talking about it.

    First, how John McCain’s 2008 campaign was funded was difficult to track down. I set to looking further into this after class and spent a couple of hours reading news reports with lots of accusations of flip flops, but very little on context and the big picture of “who did what.” In summary, what my online search of news reports, OpenSecrets, and then verification through the FEC, found was that McCain accepted public financing for the primaries, then opted out part the way through because he didn’t want to stick to the spending guidelines once he had spent more money than the limits allowed. However, in the general election, according to the FEC Summary of Contributions, McCain appears to have stuck with public financing and used the $84,103,800 in federal funds. The FEC has a fairly solid presidential campaign data visualizer, however, their search fields turned up nothing when the key words “McCain” + “2008” + “public financing” are used, which I found frustrating when trying to get financing information from the site.

    Next, was the incredibly telling Obama vs. Romney Contributor’s table that Linda showed in one of her slides. It was impactful not in its surprise factor, but the clarity of the category of backers for each candidate. The top five contributors for Romney are five major banks. The top five contributors of Obama’s campaign are two tech giants, two universities, and a global law firm, which represents mainly tech companies. I wish we were seeing more journalist-written stories and analysis and what that means and why it matters. A Google search for these kinds of reporter analysis turned up a couple of blog posts and one PolitiFact article confirming a Facebook post which listed the top 6 contributors for each candidate. I think political journalists can do better and I certainly hope as the election heats up, we will see more in depth reporting on who is backing who and what it means.

    Note: It seems I cannot add hyperlinks to my comment. If anyone would like them, I have posted my comment on Google docs with links:

  1. Session 3, Digital electioneering and advocacy « UW Digital Democracy

What do you think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s