BY Patrick Ruffini | Friday, April 4 2008
Barack Obama raised $40 million in March from over 400,000 donors. His average ticked back up to $96 after a frenzied February that featured an astonishing 700,000+ donations.
First off, the graphic on BarackObama.com that suggested one million donors WAS wrong. The Obama campaign can call it a "glitch" but it's fairly clear to me that some of their live donation counters are being programmed and don't (entirely) reflect real-time contributions. In this case, the graphic had been programmed to reflect the pace of money coming in in February, and someone forgot to shut off at the end of that fundraising campaign.
Even in the thick of the graphic's use, I was noticing sudden jumps in the donation total of 2,000 and 4,000. When the graphic was no longer officially in use, the thousands numeral was always odd, and the number always ended in 515. It's likely this didn't reflect real-time money coming in, but a pseudo-transparent estimate.
As fundraising gets more and more transparent, it's important to learn how to read between the lines. As pathbreaking as the Obama campaign has been, they are a step back from the transparency of the Dean bat, which at least gave us real dollar figures in addition to a total number of donors. Neither could beat the transparency gold standard set by Ron Paul, who updated via a real-time XML+Flash element that was scraped for analytics. Moreover, when the Paul campaign bulk uploaded offline contributions, they told people. The Obama "bat" turns out to be an indecipherable mix of real and fake data.
Even if it was a decline from February, the Obama total shows both the sustainability and the very, very high limits of his fundraising model. $40 million is still the third best fundraising month in Presidential history. To get much higher than that requires a pretty steep dropoff in the average donation amount and a different type of donor -- the incremental difference from February to March was 350,000 people giving less than $50. Obama's ceiling is probably still at least twice as high as McCain's traditional event-driven model -- with a much lower cost of fundraising.
As a result, Obama's online investment exploded into $2.6 million in online ads in the month of February alone -- a figure I'm sure is probably an order of magnitude higher than any other candidate has ever spent in a month advertising online. As big as this is, it points to how reticent campaigns have been to invest online: it took a massive surplus to open the floodgates to a point where the Obama campaign is just mimicing the commercial sector's online share of ad budgets. Still, the fact that it's finally happened -- and that it worked, presumably -- should give more campaign professionals the confidence to build that kind of spend into the baseline budget, not saving it for "extra."