Friday, July 11, 2008

Four Myths of Obama's Money Machine

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By Andrew Romano

Yesterday, I took Republican presidential nominee John McCain to task for the creative ways he's found to funnel largely unregulated and unrestricted money into his campaign—but, as some commenters rightly noted, I didn't deal with his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, at all. That was by design. The point of the piece was to show that McCain isn't quite as financially disadvantaged as the MSM makes him out to be—mostly because he's busy making sure private money benefits his bid even as he accepts (and pats himself on the back for accepting) public funds. It wasn't meant to be a compare and contrast.

That's not to imply, however, the Obama isn't playing the game as well. He is. Here, then, are four myths about Obama's much-vaunted money machine—and the reality behind them.

1. Obama Opted Out of Public Financing for Reasons of Principle
Um, no. This one would've been too obvious to refute, except that when Obama ducked his promise to "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election" last month, he tried to portray the decision as something other than pure pragmatism. "Declare your independence from this broken system," he told supporters. Baloney. In early 2007, Obama informed Larry King that "the presidential public financing system works," and the next month, he co-sponsored legislation to preserve the current setup. At the time, Obama was well-aware of the havoc 527s could wreak; after all, he'd watched the Swiftboat Vets attack John Kerry. And it was no secret—as Howard Dean had proved more than three years earlier—that the Internet could democratize the process of funding a favored politician. Since then, the 527s haven't gotten scarier, and the Web hasn't gotten webbier. What's changed is that it's now Obama (not Kerry) who's in the GOP's crosshairs and Obama (not Dean) who's rolling in the dough. So he did what any pol would do—he broke his pledge and followed the money. This was undoubtedly a wise move—with his money machine up and running, he'll certainly raise more than the $84.1 million he'd receive from taxpayers and have a better chance of winning the White House because of it. But it's hardly principled.

2. Obama Gets All—or Even the Vast Majority—of His Money from Small Donors
Rationalizing his decision, Obama said that only by opting out of public financing would his campaign be "truly funded by the American people." Besides being sort of absurd on its face—when did accepting $3 from each individual taxpayers become less egalitarian than accepting private money?—the senator's claim rests on a shaky premise: that all (or even most) of Obama's cash comes from regular guys and gals sending in $5 donations over the Internets. Fact is, that's not true. Now, don't get me wrong. Obama's massive fundraising machine—which rejects money from federal lobbyists and PACs and boasts a record number of small-sum donors among its 1.5 million individual contributors—deserves a ton of praise. It is, simply put, the most democratic in American political history.

That said, Obama's fundraising base still looks a lot like Al Gore's or John Kerry's. For starters, the majority of Obama's money continues to come from folks with fat(ter) wallets. In the primaries, for example, donations larger than $200 accounted for 55 percent of Obama's haul, or about $150 million. Lawyers forked over $18 million of that total; the largest single contributor was Goldman Sachs. And now that the primaries are over, Obama is free—like McCain—to funnel checks larger than $2,300 through the national party. He's taking full advantage of that luxury. In June, Obama reaped $6 million from guests at Ethel Kennedy's Hickory Hill home in Virginia. Ten days ago, the campaign pulled in $5 million at a Hollywood fundraiser. And just last night, Obama visited a pair of plush money events in the tony suburbs of Atlanta. At each appearance, supporters shelled out $28,500—the legal limit on donations to the DNC—for the privilege of Obama's presence. And there's more where that came from. As Penny Pritzker, Obama’s campaign finance chairwoman, told the New York Times recently, the main reason the campaign has relied on small donors for so long is that it had yet to find the time to milk the big ones. "We have not been able to have much of the senator’s time during the primaries," she said, "so we had to rely more on the Internet."

None of which is to say that Obama's money machine isn't the most democratic we've ever seen. It is. (At least 90 percent of his donors—more than 1.3 million—give small sums of money.) It's just that it's not more democratic than public financing--despite the spin from Chicago.

3. The Share of Obama's Money That Comes From Small Donors Is Completely Unprecedented
This one's kind of surprising. Obama has certainly set the record for small-sum donations as a share of his total take—about 45 percent of his money comes from checks of $200 or less. But while Obama is definitely doing better with small donors than previous presidential candidates, it's not by the *astronomical* margin you might have assumed. According to an analysis by Joseph Graf, 31 percent of Bush's money in 2004 came from donations of $200 or less (compared to 16 percent in 2000). Kerry, meanwhile, raised 37 percent of his money in 2004 from small donors (as compared to 20 percent for Gore in 2000). That's only eight points less than Obama—and there's a strong chance that if Kerry were running this year, with improved technology and an improved environment for Dems, he would've done better.

4. Obama Won't Receive Any Help From Outside Groups
Yesterday, I mentioned a few of the extracurricular organizations planning to boost McCain's bid with unregulated and unrestricted "soft money" investments: the NRA, the Christian Defense Coalition and the former Swift Boat Vets for Truth (among others). But McCain's not alone. Even though the Obama campaign has sought to maintain message control and distinguish itself from Team McCain by discouraging its top fundraisers from giving to outside orgs—a directive that killed off a pair of Democratic-aligned soft-money groups, Fund for America and Progressive Media U.S.A., in their infancy—there are as many 527s poised to assist the senator from Illinois as his rival from Arizona. These include America Votes, an umbrella organization planning a $20 million voter mobilization drive;, also planning to invest $15 million on GOTV; a host of unions, including the SEI and A.F.L.-C.I.O., which announced its $53.4 million election effort late last month; and, of course,, which recently closed its 527 but is hoping to raise some $40 million for the general election through its political action committee.

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