Are Small Online Donors the Key (and Largely Overlooked) Factor in the Presidential Race?

Two days from the presidential election, here’s where we stand: tight in the popular vote, but with a small but consistent Obama lead in the bulk of the battleground states. Both campaigns are spending big money on TV ads, and Obama’s grassroots turnout operation is about to go into full gear.

Plenty of factors shaped the race and put us where we are now: the economy, the debates, the conventions and even the weather. But one fundamental fact has driven the campaigns’ tactics and strategy behind the scenes, in Obama’s case from the beginning of the race: Obama built a base of small-dollar online donors, and Romney didn’t. Obama’s lead in the battleground states? The relative equality of the ad war? Obama’s turnout machine? All dynamics driven by the Obama campaign’s ability to tap small donors again and again — and Romney’s lack of the same. Let’s see how we got here.


Remember June and July, after Romney survived the primaries and Republican donors’ wallets opened up for him? Money poured into the Republican’s bank account and Democrats trembled to think of the ad barrage it would fund. One tiny example: in a typical left-wing fundraising email from that period (subject line: “We’re getting beat”), MoveOn begged supporters to give money in part because “Romney’s just out raised President Obama for the third straight month.” Likewise, Citizens United and related court cases were supposed to allow “independent” conservative groups to pummel Democrats into insensibility with a wave of political ads unlike anything ever seen.

Anyone living in a battleground state (or one with a competitive Senate race) will attest that the predicted ad deluge hit — to the benefit of local TV stations and to harm of anyone with taste, style and operational brain cells. But the ads mostly seem a wash, with the Left largely matching the Right in numbers of spots run (though targeted Congressional races may be a different story). One set of presidential-level TV ads DO seem to have made a difference, though: the wave of Obama spots that sought to define Romney as a job-destroying, out of touch corporate raider in the summer. As they were on the air, observers pointed to them as already swinging battleground polls in the President’s direction; even now, they seem to have helped create a “firewall” against a late Romney surge.

Why didn’t big Republican money overwhelm Obama and the Democrats? Largely because of what it was: BIG Republican money. Individual donors can give a candidate a maximum of $2500 per race, yielding $5000 between the primaries and the general election. Along with functionally unlimited amounts to SuperPACs et al, they can also give more to political parties, and Romney’s summer numbers included plenty of donations that were going to the RNC and the state parties rather than to his own campaign. And as National Journal pointed out at the time, “money raised with and for GOP committees still matters, but its value is diminished because the candidate doesn’t directly control it.”

Obama’s fundraising over the same period relied on plenty of big-dollar donors as well, but even then his campaign noted the advantage that a much larger base of small-dollar donors gave them: “Obama spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki repeated the campaign’s emphasis on the 98 percent of its donations that were $250 or less — meaning that those donors are under the limit and can continue to contribute.” I.e., they could continue to donate directly to the campaign all down the line. And where do small donors give their money? Over the internet — making digital donations key to the Obama campaign, just as they were in 2008.

Obama’s online small-donor advantage translated into confidence that cash would continue to flow in, meaning that his campaign could invest money over the summer, knowing that grassroots supporters would replenish the coffers after the convention (note: they did). As a result, Obama’s ad buyers filled swing-state TV screens with anti-Romney messaging while the Republican hoarded the pennies he had left over from the primaries, waiting to become the official nominee and able to tap those big donors for the second time.

Plus, Obama’s team had the cash (and the strategy) on-hand months ago to buy the ads we’re seeing NOW — many of the current campaign spots are running in time reserved back in the summer, when it was much cheaper to buy. So even as Romney outspends Obama in actual dollars, the Democrat’s money is going farther and buying more.

Money flowing through SuperPACs and other independent groups magnifies the effect. TV stations are required to sell ads to campaigns at a discount, meaning that Crossroads GPS and its ilk are getting even less bang for their buck than the Obama campaign is.

The upshot? Far from swept away by torrents of money flowing from individual big-dollar donors, the Democrats and their small-dollar donors are holding their own. But if the air war has ended up even, the ground war is a different story.

Field Organizing and GOTV

Almost a year ago, the Obama grassroots staff and volunteers had already made ONE MILLION phone calls to 2008 supporters trying to bring them back into the fold. By winter, they were setting up field offices across the country and running digital ads to build their email list, even as the Republican presidential candidates beat each other into the dirt. Obama’s infrastructure advantage continued through the summer and fall, with his campaign offices handily outnumbering Romney’s in the battleground states. Two days before the election, his grassroots operation had opened 5000+ additional canvassing staging areas and had 700,000 volunteer shifts scheduled for the final GOTV rush.

Meanwhile, early canvassing combined with online data mining to give Obama’s staff an unprecedented amount of knowledge about the voters they needed to reach and the messages that might sway them. “Microtargeting” was the buzzword, but data was the result: weeks ago hard numbers made the campaign “cautiously confident” that the race was trending in their favor, based on what they knew about the voters who had yet to make up their minds. With election day upon us, the same data helps target emails, ads and last-minute individual contacts to maximize the chances of getting Democratic supporters to the polls.

Romney followed a completely different path, by necessity and perhaps by inclination. Field organizing takes TIME, and an expensive primary season didn’t leave the Mitt resources for luxuries like millions of dollars in staff fees in January — he was spending money as it came in, mostly on TV and the basic logistics of keeping a campaign on the move. And once the internecine struggle was over and donations DID start flowing in, as we saw above many of them weren’t under his direct control, leaving him cautious with cash up until the Republican convention let him hit his big donors one more time.

Much of the Republican ground game this year instead was “outsourced” to others (a phrase I read weeks ago and would love to track down) — tens of millions of the dollars Romney raised in June and July went to the state parties, for instance, which were in charge of building their own (functionally independent) turnout operations. Running 50-odd separate campaigns is obviously not as effecient as running one integrated national campaign, and many of the states in turn farmed their OWN work out to contractors, wasting money and losing efficiency at every step. Oh yeah, then there was that voter-registration fraud….

Some independent groups could try and make up for the lack of a unified ground game, with Ralph Reed for instance trying to mobilize evangelical voters and play a role similar to that of the unions on the Left. But SuperPACs and (c)4s are INDEPENDENT by definition, even if they do sometimes use the same media firms as the campaigns, meaning that they can’t coordinate their messaging OR their canvassing, once again wasting resources which weren’t plentiful to begin with. And, with no central data collection and analysis center, Romneys team has access to nothing remotely like the comprehensive picture of the electorate Obama’s people are using to target their final work and win the election. And how could they? Romney’s team had neither the time nor (most critically) the money to build a national grassroots operation — in large part because of who they depended on to fund it.

The Endgame

Back to now: the polls are tight, the ads have run, and the turnout operations are going full-on. And, I’d argue that we’re about to see the results of a fundamental clash of campaign organizing models. Obama’s team carefully constructed of a long-term engagement campaign built on a base of repeat small-dollar donors who could also fund its TV advertising. The Right has largely relied on saturation bombing of battleground states with TV ads funded by big money. Which will win? Obama’s staff may be nervous, but they’re confident they’re going to wake up happy on November 7th — and so am I.


Written by
Colin Delany
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