Chump Change We Can't Believe In

Tomorrow night is the third-quarter fundraising deadline and the speculation games have already begun. The New York Times looked at 2008 Obama supporters who are now fed up with Obama and unwilling to sacrifice even $3 because Obama didn’t deliver the change they believed in. This line of thinking will likely frame how the new data is perceived. But comparing Obama’s current fundraising capacity among small donors to his impressive haul in 2008 is the wrong way to analyze the data; in this fundraising cycle the most important numbers to predict Obama’s future success among small donors are those of his rivals, not his own.

Incumbent President Obama cannot raise money in the same way that fresh-faced Senator Obama could, when he was in the same place that Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are in now: in a heavily-covered primary race against Hillary Clinton where his donations were dependent on the sustained thrill of that race. Obama's policy initiatives now, however popular, can’t compete with the horse-race elements of the GOP primary. Obama is also limited by the fact he is running, as all incumbents do, on past policy instead of rhetoric and promises. Yes, Obama has some dissatisfied supporters, but this isn’t some phenomenon limited to him. Elected presidents always lose popularity over the course of their tenure, and at this point, it is too premature to say that the inevitable drop in approval is a bellwether for a drop in donations.

As Cornell University professor Adam Seth Levine points out, Obama’s popularity with small donors didn't surge until 2008 -- between January and September 2007, 60 percent of Obama’s donations came in over-$1,000 increments. The inevitable articles about how Obama is losing support among small donors are forgetting this fact. That the Obama campaign received donations from, according to campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, 552,000 Americans -- 98 percent less than $250 -- in the second quarter is impressive in this context.

If Perry or Romney’s reporting shows that they have been more successful in collecting small donations than Obama was at this point in 2007, which seems unlikely, that would be more cause for alarm than Obama's small-donor numbers compared to Romney or Perry. In truth, being an incumbent is more boring than being in a primary at this point in the election cycle. And despite the appealing small-donor narrative, what really matters is drawing in the big bucks anyway.

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