Big Donors Still Calling The Shots

The following piece is part of an ongoing series of OffTheBus reports by citizen policy experts critiquing different aspects of Campaign 08.

With presidential candidates leaking their third quarter fundraising totals right and left before their reports are officially due next Monday, it may seem like the big news is already played out.

But one thing for activists to keep an eye on once the reports are available to the public is how much campaign cash all the would-be presidents are raising from small donors -- those giving $200 or less.

Small donors were the big news of course back in 2004, when then candidate Howard Dean's success raising small contributions over the Internet made the political world take notice. And they are news this time around, too, with Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) raising 28 percent of his cash from such donors so far.

Indeed, overall, during their second quarter of fundraising, donors who gave $200 or less accounted for one out of four contributions from individuals collected by presidential candidates, an increase of 84 percent over first quarter totals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

But that's the glass half full version of the fundraising story. The empty part of the glass is how big donors still call the shots. It's important to remember that early money is big money. When they start up their campaigns, while working to establish their competitiveness, presidential candidates concentrate on big donors. It was only later in the 2004 campaign, once Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and President George W. Bush were safely established as contenders, that they started raising more money from small donors.

In the first six months of 2007, presidential candidates raised nearly three quarters of their campaign cash from contributions of $1,000 or more, according to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI); just 17 percent came from donors of $200 or less. While the percentage of individual contributions from small donors is up slightly in 2007 over 2003, it was higher more than ten years ago, in 1995.

When third quarter reports are filed on Monday, they may well show that the amount candidates are collecting from small donors has increased. Or they may not. But one thing to bet on is that the majority of the cash collected comes in much bigger chunks. The percentage coming from small donors is likely to be even smaller in House and Senate campaigns.

One way out of this morass would be to fix the ailing presidential public financing system. A healthy public financing of elections program would enhance the power of small donors by providing presidential candidates with enough money to run competitive campaigns without having to rely on big bundles of private cash. After all, small donors can't be everywhere all the time. The fix is also important for Congress. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the second highest ranking Democrat, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) have introduced the Fair Elections Now Act that would bring Clean Elections style campaign reform to the U.S. Senate. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. John Tierney (D-MA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Todd Platts (R-PA) that will cover those races.

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