Media Inspects Obama's Small-Donor Troops

A New York Times report sparks a debate about the re-election campaign's strength

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Today, the White House is pushing back against a widely-read New York Times article on the state of President Obama's fundraising army. According to Times reporter Nick Confessore, the grassroots donors who contributed small amounts ($10-$50) to his record-breaking 2008 presidential campaign are nowhere to be seen—spelling big trouble for his re-election war-chest:

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. Half of them were new donors, and nearly all of them gave contributions of less than $250.

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.

The article made a big splash, prompting some top political observers to challenge its thesis and others to emphasize its importance. Here's the landscape of thought on it:

It's plainly untrue In a statement, President Obama's campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt pushes back hard on Confessore's article. "More than 552,000 Americans contributed to the campaign in the second quarter — more than in all of 2007 — including 260,000 who had never given before," he writes. "That's evidence of a growing organization. 98 percent of contributions were in amounts of $250 or less compared to only 6 percent of the Romney campaign's total coming from small dollar donations."

It's definitely true but it may not matter, writes Politico's Ben Smith, who says though the small donor passion is diminished, Obama can make it up in other ways. "My conclusion last time I looked at this in detail was that Obama begins with giant technical advantages he lacked in 2008 -- a huge list, a huge platform, a huge base," he writes. "So he actually probably will raise as much money as he did last time. But if his campaign was riding a wave in 2008, this time they're going to have to sweat for every dollar."

It definitely does matter adds an anonymous Republican in an e-mail to Politico's Mike Allen:  “The nytimes piece on lack of small donors returning is most important story to date of cycle … This means he can’t raise a billion.”

Hold on: the findings in this story are bogus, writes political scientist and author Seth Masket:

There's a big and very obvious problem with this comparison. The half-million people who have donated to Obama's 2012 campaign so far (that is, through June of 2011) are being compared with those who donated through the entirety of the 2008 campaign season. The bulk of donors don't get involved until much closer to the primaries and general election. The appropriate comparison point would be those who donated through June of 2007. According to the FEC, there were just over 77,000 donations to Obama in the first half of 2007, roughly a third of which were under $250.

So, just to review, Obama has received more than seven times as many donations at this point in the 2012 cycle than he did by this point in the 2008 cycle. What's more, the share of his donations coming from small (under $250) contributions is now greater than it was four years ago.

Here's the thing: We don't need to look at small donors to know Obama is less popular, writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein on his personal blog:

Here's the thing. Barack Obama isn't as popular now as he was in January 2009. This is not exactly a little-known fact; indeed, we fortunately have some really good indicators of exactly how popular Obama is overall, and they're not all that obscure.

What this means is that sloppy journalists can get endless mileage from picking out any subgroup in the nation and finding out that, gee, Obama has lost popularity there!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.