Are Small Contributions The Key To Campaign Finance Reform?

One of the most discussed aspects of the 2008 presidential election is how successfully Barack Obama raked in small dollar donations.


One of the most discussed aspects of the 2008 presidential election is how successfully Barack Obama raked in small dollar donations. The sheer number of these contributions leads many to marvel; in the primary race, 30 percent of Obama's fundraising came from contributions less than $200. In the general, that number jumped to 34 percent. Obama's fundraising, along with the small army of volunteers his campaign commanded, spurred four leading thinkers on campaign finance to consider whether the Obama campaign had – inadvertently - provided a model to reform campaign finance law. On Thursday, the foursome laid out policy recommendations that they believe will fundamentally change campaign fundraising for the better. Their report focuses on one key principle: Increase the number of small contributions in all campaigns. The authors of the report are Anthony Corrado of Colby College, Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. In his introduction, Malbin said the group is seeking to shift the debate away from the usual debate over restrictions on big dollar contributions to focus on encouraging small dollar contributions. The idea being that more small donors translates into more volunteers, which in turn translates into more participation in the electorate. While Obama may have provided the stimulus for these recommendations, he is without a doubt an aberration. Small dollar donations have declined in the last 10 years at every level of government. Perhaps more notably, Obama relied on traditional big dollar contributions to get his campaign off the ground. It was only after he was an established candidate that the small dollar contributions began rolling in. So how does policy facilitate small dollar contributions even in the early stages of a race? The group looked at states where there have been more small contributions. In 2006, for example, over half of all the contributions in Minnesota races came in small denominations – the highest percentage in the country. (The lowest, by the way, was Alabama, where only 3 percent did.) The group recommends a series of steps to try to increase the number of small dollar contributions. First, a more robust matching fund pubic financing system. Second, when it comes to public financing, lower contribution limits should replace spending limits. Third, enforce a ceiling on the amount of public funds a candidate may receive. All of this, according to the authors, will not only increase civic participation, but it will level the playing field between incumbents and challengers by encouraging more people to run. Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics. He can be reached at jjacobs@politicsmagazine.com


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