Uncovering Small Donors

2008 was the election of change—small change, that is.

2008 was the election of change—small change, that is. A survey released yesterday shed new light on the small donors—those who give less than $200—that raised large amounts of money for both the Obama and McCain campaigns last year. Small donors used to be the dark matter of politics: You knew they were there, but you couldn’t directly prove their effect. Under FEC rules, individual campaign donations of more than $200 must be on the books, but campaigns aren’t required to disclose detailed information on donors who contribute less than that. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns, however, provided by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED) with a random sample of their under-$200 sponsors, shedding light on the small donors formerly under the FEC’s radar. The survey broke new ground by putting a face to these little guys. Robert Magleby, a senior research fellow with CSED, noted that Obama’s small donors weren’t the political fat cats you’d expect, but tended to be less affluent, degree-holding, young and predominantly female. The findings showed that both candidates’ fundraising demographics aligned fairly consistently with their voting demographics. Obama’s small donors were disproportionately female (56 percent) while McCain’s were mostly male (61 percent); 27 percent of Obama’s donors were non-white, compared to only 7 percent of McCain’s. The survey confirmed that on the individual level, the Obama campaign was a fundraising giant. Obama raised nearly $178 million (a quarter of his $700 million fundraising total) in small donations, while McCain raised $35 million in small donations (7 percent of his $316 million fundraising total). 2008 has been called the data-driven election, and the survey found that technology was a major game-changer. The Obama campaign cashed in on young Internet users—Obama had three times as many donors under the age of 30 as McCain—by providing far more online donation options than McCain and involving people directly via text-messaging and email. About two-thirds of Obama's small donors made contributions online, compared to only one-third for the McCain camp. And of those, about 40 percent of Obama’s small online donors gave multiple times, compared to less than a quarter of McCain’s. Christian Ferry, John McCain’s deputy campaign director, took note of Obama’s ability to tap non-traditional demographics via technologically-based tools, saying that the GOP needs to streamline its campaigning technology: “If we want to win, we need to catch up,” he said. The survey was presented at a panel titled “The Change Election: Money, Mobilization, and Persusasian in the 2008 Federal Elections," sponsored by CSED and held at the University of California Washington DC Center. More comprehensive results of the CSED survey will be released in the upcoming months.

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