More information emerged yesterday about the scope and scale of the “small donor revolution.” The Campaign Finance Institute released data on individual donations to presidential candidates—large and small—which suggests that despite the fanfare surrounding small donors, “the cumulative bottom line for all campaigns so far has shown only an incremental, though significant, change in the overall balance between small and large donations.” In other words, if you take all presidential candidates from both parties into account, not just Clinton and Obama, this election has not dramatically tipped the scales towards small individual donations after all.
From January 2007 to March 2008, 34% of donated dollars came in amounts less than $200, versus 27% for the same period in 2003–4. It’s a significant increase, to be sure, but perhaps not the “revolution” that many have suggested—and certainly not the “parallel public funding system” that Obama has described.
This is not to say that small donors are not an asset for campaigns. For example, a full 52% of McCain’s individual donations come from $2300 contributions (the limit), whereas they make up only 8% of both Clinton’s and Obama’s totals. This means that a large chunk of McCain’s donors have “maxed out,” while the Dems can continue to return to their donors for more support. This allows donors to stay engaged throughout their chosen candidate’s campaign. Says one Obama supporter quoted in the National Journal, “Every time my husband and I are going to go out to dinner, we figure the average cost is about $80, so we just donate it to Barack instead.”
McCain, who is expected to accept public financing for his general election campaign, will have to depend on his supporters making donations directly to the RNC, which has a whopping individual contribution limit of $28,500.
CFI also provides comparisons to previous elections. It’s interesting to note that in 2000, 40% of McCain’s individual donations came from small donors, while in this campaign small donations account for only 23%.
We have a lot to learn still about what this data means as campaigns play out. Remember that CFI is counting donations, and not donors. And on Election Day, every vote counts the same, whether it is cast by a small donor or large.