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Obama Raises a Whopping $86M, But Not As Grassroots as They Want You To Think

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, July 13 2011

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina has announced that Obama 2012 has raised a whopping $86 million in the second quarter of this year, shattering George W. Bush's prior record of $50 million in a quarter, and way ahead of Obama's fundraising pace four years ago. The official report will be filed with the FEC this Friday, but Messina continued the campaign's tradition of reporting "first" to its grassroots email list via YouTube video. The numbers are impressive, but there's a catch.

Messina emphasizes the grass-roots base of Obama 2012 in the video, rattling off statistic after statistic: 31,000 face-to-face meetings conducted by organizers; 290,000 conversations; 650 local organizing meetings; 60 field offices set up across the country. These are impressive numbers, and further indication of how the Obama team tracks field data.

But when it comes to the hard numbers of campaign finance, Messina tries to pull a fast one on his supposedly grassroots audience when it comes to describing, as he puts it, "who we raised it from." He proudly touts the campaign's 552,462 individual donors who gave more than 680,000 contributions in the second quarter. If you had any doubt that we are living in an age of mass participation in national politics, enabled by the internet's ease of communication, here's more proof. Ninety-eight percent of all those contributions, he notes, were in amounts of $250 or less, with an average donation size of just $69, proof of Obama's roots "small dollar, ordinary people" kind of politics.

There's just one problem with this claim: The $86 million raised by the Obama campaign in this quarter didn't come with an average donation size of $69. That's because, as Messina notes near the video's end, $38 million of that whopping total went to the Democratic National Committee, via the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that Obama controls. At OVF fundraisers, a donor can give up to $5,000 to the presidential campaign committee and another $30,800 to the DNC. (Here's an invitation to one that happened recently in Chicago, starring Rahm Emanuel.)

"We can bet," says Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute, which is working on analyzing the details buried in the campaign's forthcoming 15,000 page report to the FEC, "that most of the party money came from people who maxed out. " He added in an email to me, "Interestingly, by going to people for 30K this calendar year, he can go back again next year for another 30K. It's one of the perqs of incumbency." An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics of DNC fundraising between January and May 2011 found that the committee raised $11 million from donors contributing more than $30,000 compared with just $3 million raised in that category by the Republican National Committee. Big checks of $10,000 and up were 38% of that haul, compared to just 18% in that category for Republicans.

Multiply 680,000 by $69 and you get about $46.9 million. Messina's appears to want things both ways--a record-breaking money haul AND the appearance of being a campaign "owned" by ordinary people. That may be the case to the extent that you think maxing-out donors from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood are "ordinary people."

Here's Messina's video: