Obama Campaign Shows Fundraising “Strength”?

Reuters, AP (and NYT) offer differing takes

Should Team Obama be feeling optimistic or concerned about its fundraising prospects this election cycle?

That depends. It depends, of course, on how fundraising success is measured (Who gave and how much? Compared to what?). We don’t yet know what the Obama campaign’s third quarter fundraising report—Friday marks the end of the quarter—will hold. But we do have the report from last quarter (the first of Obama’s re-election campaign), unofficial accounts of his recent flurry of fundraisers, hints/expectations management from the campaign itself, and Obama’s fundraising history from the 2008 election cycle to help us assess how the Obama campaign is faring in the money chase (or, if you prefer, cash dash or money grab or money rush). And, from different combinations of these things, different pictures can be painted.

Here’s an optimistic take from Reuters this morning below the headline, “Obama West Coast Swing shows fundraising strength”:

President Barack Obama topped up his re-election war chest with a string of successful West Coast fundraisers that ended Monday and showed soft poll numbers had not dented his ability to raise big money.

Despite tough economic times, supporters shelled out for events from Seattle to San Diego that likely raised upward of $5 million in two days, paying up to the legal limit of $35,800 to hear Obama speak….

Obama’s approval rating dropped over the summer as concern mounted the United States was headed into a second recession, but he has still been able to pull in plenty of fundraising dollars.

His campaign team also said it was close to racking up a million donors, recalling his massive grass-roots fundraising push that helped him win the White House in 2008.

Tour events have been crammed with guests, who applauded loud and long in response to his intensified criticism of Republicans and his oft-repeated call for Congress to pass his $447 billion jobs bill.

Any sense of unease among supporters has not hurt fundraising, with a second-quarter total of $86 million on behalf of both his own campaign and that of the Democratic Party.

By focusing on Obama’s recent big-money fundraising swoop (lots of people bought expensive tickets and applauded loudly), noting the campaign’s claim that it will soon have one million donors (read: small donors, too!), and lumping the Obama campaign’s second quarter haul ($46 million) with the DNC’s for a total of $86 million, Reuters finds the glass half-full (not that the last point isn’t legit—or unique to Reuters—as much of what the DNC collects will go to Obama’s re-election efforts).

Then there’s this less sunny report out of San Jose from the Associated Press (headline: “Fundraiser Obama works in tough money environment”):

This is no 2008, when money seemed to fall from the sky for a young senator named Barack Obama.

In theory, fundraising should be even easier this time for the Democrat who shattered money records in his first White House campaign. He’s the president now, with an unparalleled bullhorn and reach.

But his title isn’t all that’s changed. The economy is sickly, and he’s in charge. That’s not only threatening his re-election; it’s also making it more difficult to inspire people to open their checkbooks for his campaign.

Many of the core supporters he counted on last time for small-dollar donations are disgruntled now. Some are personally cash-strapped. And he’s had to cancel a slew of fundraisers as he tends to the business of governing a country that some fear could slide back into a recession.

So, according to Reuters, “tough economic times” haven’t much hurt Obama’s fundraising, big-dollar or grass-roots. Meanwhile, the AP reports that the “sour” “sickly” economy is contributing to a tough fundraising road for Obama, as supporters are slower to reach for their wallets—even his “core” small-dollar donors of ’08 who are now disillusioned and/or broke. That flurry of West Coast fundraisers that Reuters read as showing “strength?” The AP presents them as a hustle, with “an important reporting deadline on Friday,” to make up for having had to “cancel a slew of fundraisers” during the debt crisis this summer and for the challenge of winning back now “disgruntled” small donors. Obama is “still outpacing his Republican rivals in the money chase by the tens of millions,” notes the AP, but compared to Obama 2008, Obama 2012 may not match up.

In fact, I couldn’t find another assessment as bullish as Reuters’s. Certainly not this report from The New York Times over the weekend, which focused on those “disgruntled” small-dollar Obama donors from the 2008 cycle (headline: “Small Donors Are Slow to Return to Obama Fold”). The Times found that

[I]n recent months, the frustration and disillusionment that have dragged down Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have crept into the ranks of his vaunted small-donor army, underscoring the challenges he faces as he seeks to rekindle grass-roots enthusiasm for his re-election bid.

The Times interviewed “dozens of low-dollar contributors” to Obama’s ’08 campaign and found:

[S]ome said they were unhappy with what they viewed as Mr. Obama’s overly conciliatory approach to Congressional Republicans. Others cited what they saw as a lack of passion in the president, or said the sour economy had drained both their enthusiasm and their pocketbooks.

Among the donors the Times tracked down (let’s hear it for the shoe-leathering!) was a man who appeared in Obama’s re-election campaign kick-off video in April but is now “bewildered” by the president and hasn’t given the campaign any money yet, despite having “sent a half-dozen checks to Mr. Obama during the last campaign” (we’re not told if he plans to send any checks this time around or whether he’d sent any of his checks last time by this point—thirteen months out—in the cycle).

So according to the Times, Team Obama should be concerned indeed about its fundraising prospects, particularly its ability to again attract those same repeat small-dollar donors from 2008. The Times notes that “through June 30, the close of the most recent campaign reporting period, more than 552,000 people had contributed to Mr. Obama’s re-election effort, according to campaign officials” and that “half of them were new donors, and nearly all of them gave contributions of less than $250.” While no context (historical or otherwise) for these numbers is provided, that the subsequent sentence begins with “but” seems to signal such numbers are positive for Team Obama. But, on to the Times’s “but:”

But those figures obscured another statistic: a vast majority of Mr. Obama’s past donors, who number close to four million, have not yet given him any money at all.

So, four million people donated to the Obama campaign over the whole of the 2008 election cycle and, with thirteen months to go in this very different election cycle (Obama is the presumably unopposed incumbent rather than a relative newcomer battling Sen. Hillary Clinton for the nomination and the economic picture is bleaker than it was four years ago) the majority of those same donors have not yet ponied up. Is it, perhaps, too early to expect otherwise? What are readers to make of this? How many of these folks, say, had donated by this point in the last cycle? The Times doesn’t say.

So, let’s try to piece it together ourselves. Obama’s 2008 campaign reached the one million donors mark in February 2008, per the AP, which means that some three million donors gave to Obama between March 2008 and election day. In other words, at this point in the 2008 cycle, too, the vast majority of Obama’s donors had not yet given him any money at all. Thus, Team Obama is not now behind in the pace of donations compared to 2008, although it may find itself in such a position at some point before election day. The campaign told The Washington Post that the 552,000 donors it had as of June of this year is itself more donors than the Obama campaign had “in all of 2007.”

As for the pace of small-donor giving, specifically, the OpenSecrets.org blog—from the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, a go-to resource for campaign finance number-crunching—provides some additional context to the Times piece:

But despite the enthusiasm gap noted by the Times, all does not seem to be lost for Obama regarding small-dollar donors… As of June 30, Obama’s presidential campaign reported collecting about $46.3 million and about $21.65 million of that came from donors who contributed $200 or less. That’s a pace that is even higher than his 2008 campaign, meaning for every disillusioned individual who gave Obama money in 2008 who hasn’t donated to his re-election effort, the campaign has tapped new supporters who are willing to open their wallets for the president.

So, the “vaunted small-donor army” of 2008, as the Times puts it, may be “slow to return” to Obama’s fold but, according to OpenSecrets.org, other small donors are enlisting at a faster pace than at this point in the 2008 cycle.

And the moral of this story is? These fundraising horse race stories (Who’s ahead in the money chase? How is candidate X doing versus candidate Y? How is candidate X circa 2012 doing versus candidate X circa 2008?) pop up around quarterly filing deadlines. Read them with an especially critical eye.

Correction: This article originally reported that Friday is the FEC filing deadline for candidates’ third quarter reports. In fact, Friday marks the end of the third quarter reporting period and candidates have until October 15th to file. CJR regrets the error. (Thanks, Brendan!)

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.