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The Enduring Power of Small Online Donors

BY Colin Delany | Monday, October 20 2008

Cross-posted on e.politics

Sunday's announcement from the Obama campaign confirmed it: whatever other political roles it may play, the internet is one hell of a way to fund a campaign. Obama raised more than $150 million in September, adding over 630,000 new donors and more than doubling the previous monthly record haul, also his. To put that in context, in this one month he pulled in almost double the $84 million (supplemented by RNC funds) that McCain can spend for his entire general election campaign.

Though much of the money came from large fundraising events in Hollywood and elsewhere, the average donation was less than $100 (most much lower) and came inonline, and the new donors have swelled the Obama list to some 3.1 million people. Large donors hit their giving limits and top out relatively quickly, making them a limited resource. By contrast, small donors are the gift that keeps on giving, quite literally -- Obama and other politicians who've assembled large online lists can go back to the same supporters over and over again. Plus, online donations help campaigns capitalize on bursts of attention and on changing conditions, since money given electronically is available for use immediately. The result? A massive Democratic advantage in TV ad spending, field office-staffing and volunteer organizing -- and quite possibly a 2008 Democratic landslide.

We've seen the internet play a truly significant role in several ways over the two long years of the presidential campaign: online video shifted the candidates' fortunes more than once, for instance, most dramatically Barack Obama's during the heyday of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright last Spring. And the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim emails still dog his steps, and even after months of aggressive debunking, they remain one of the truly effective weapons against him.

But nothing else online compares in long-term significance to the Obama's creation of an army of supporters willing to part with relatively small amounts of money over and over again. They saved him after a disappointing Super Tuesday and again when the Reverend Wright threatened fatal damage to his image, in both cases continuing to fund television commercials and field organizing in critical states (remember that string of 10-odd unanswered caucus victories?) -- while also helping him avoid the "campaign-is-floundering-and-bankrupt" storyline that's doomed many an election run in the past. And if November 4th somehow turns out to be closer than the current polling suggests, they and the other millions on his supporter list may save him once again.

Of course all of this is no accident, and the Obama team takes great care in cultivating their list. For instance, they don't just ask for money, and when they do, it's often for only $5 or $10 (fundraising emails from the RNC generally emphasize the one-off big-money donations, by contrast). But Obama supporters are also likely to get strategy videos or reports from the campaign, along with chances to help out non-monetarily (voter-registration drives, block-walking, etc.). The Obama campaign clearly sees relationships with supporters as assets to be nurtured over a long period of time.

Their greatest importance may actually lie in the future, though, assuming an Obama victory -- as he begins to move from running for office to governing a country, they'll give him an independent power base, a permanent tool to use to promote his agenda, pressure Congress and assure reelection. Farther down the road? Cult figure, world leader or celebrity, they can still help -- and as long as they continue to believe in him, they'll be there.

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