Greg Mitchell's numbers

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 4, 2008

Poking around Editor & Publisher for the previous post, I came across editor Greg Mitchell's latest column defending the early media narrative that Barack Obama was breaking new ground.

The Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) study asserting that Barack Obama actually raised most of his campaign money from "larger" not "small" donors has gained wide, often approving, coverage in recent days, from, among others, USA Today, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and countless other web sites. Almost inevitably such accounts have held a headline referring to the "myth" of Obama riding a wave of small donations to victory. The study's author himself uses it.

But the "myth" is actually in the spinning of the report, including by its author, Michael Malbin, a former speechwriter for Dick Cheney, when he was Pentagon chief, and a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute from 1977 to 1986.

As usual in these cases, it's not that the numbers are wrong, it's the analysis and how the interpretation is being played by the media. Because, buried in the report, are all the figures and arguments for showing that the CFI's "myth" is actually a myth.

The New York Times'  report is here. Ignore Mitchell's ad hominem -- expected from Mitchell and let's see how he does in his "fact-checking."

1. Did many in the media actually allege that most of Obama's total funding was coming from small donors -- or just that he was being helped along significantly by them and that the number of new and smaller donors was unprecedented? All of that, in fact, is true, based on the study. In fact, even accepting the CFI's tight definition of "small," these people donated more than half of what McCain was able to raise in total.

Well, you had graphics like this one. Articles like this one by E.J. Dionne which includes this:

With the Supreme Court slowly closing the door on traditional approaches to campaign finance reform, individual citizens will have to take the cause into their own hands.

The good news is that hundreds of thousands of Americans are doing exactly that. The small-donor uprising, which began in the 2004 campaign, could fundamentally alter the direction of American politics without any changes in the law.


Barack Obama is the main beneficiary, but by democratizing fundraising -- the most elitist aspect of our politics -- small donors could bring a salutary dose of equality to the process.

There was this article in the Washington Post [PDF format]:

Obama has raised record-breaking sums from small donors, so his announcement yesterday that he would opt out of the public financing system for the general election did not surprise many. And the idea that the Internet and grass-roots donations will somehow reinvigorate our democracy is appealing. But this notion is not borne out by the evidence.

As of April 30, the Obama campaign had collected more than $120 million in contributions of $200 or less. In April alone, the latest month for which data are available, Obama raised more than $31 million, about 65 percent of which came from contributions of $200 or less.

This article from Roll Call:

For the first time ever, presidential candidates have managed to turn small donors into their greatest funding source, sending signals that the small-donor revolution — a mere experiment by Howard Dean just four years ago — has officially arrived. In February 2008, according to a Campaign Finance Institute analysis of the latest official campaign receipts, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) raised 56 percent of his contributions in increments of $200 or less, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) raised 52 percent in similar amounts.

That's the tone of the articles -- and the numbers they're giving out disprove Mitchell's point. The Post article puts small donors as comprising 65 percent of Obama's April '08 donations. The Roll Call article puts Obama's Feb. '08 donations at 56 percent of his total. The meme was out there, but Mitchell doesn't even bother to do a Lexis/Nexis search -- and he's got access to that database, all I've got is Google. Instead, Mitchell dissembles.

2. More importantly, what is a "small donor"? The report suggests that giving more than $200, in aggregate, takes you out of the "small" level. Between $200 and $1000 represents "mid-range" with over $1000 "large." There are two problems with this.

Why would $199 be small but, say, $299 not? It's an awfully arbitrary breakdown.

Second, what is really "small"? With fat cats bundling millions, and many able to give up to $4600 individually, why not define "small" as, say, under $500 or under $800? This would change the numbers dramatically.

For example, much has been made of the percentage of "small money" (under $200) for Obama being only one point higher than that for Bush in 2004 (26% vs. 25%). But if you consider "small" a figure of $999 or less (in aggregate, often made up of repeated small donations), the Obama figure comes to 53%, while Bush stops at 38% and McCain at 41% -- quite a difference.

3. Many people started by giving less than $200 but then kept giving more, putting them in the mid- or high-level categories. It's valid to combine them, except that the study insists on comparing Obama's race and fundraising with past campaigns. And there's no comparison. None of the candidates in the past two cycles campaigned for almost two years, and were engaged in brutal primary fight that ended little more than two months before the party's convention. Kerry, Bush, and McCain all had relatively brief (or no) primary battles. So the Obama fundraising went on much, much, longer, by necessity.

Yet by CFI's definition, if you gave Obama $100 in 2007, then $100 when he kept battling Clinton in the spring of 2008, and then another $100 in September 2008, you were not a "small" donor.

Mitchell is right that the $200 mark is an arbitrary number. But there's an excellent reason to use that number, which Mitchell ignores -- $200 is the trigger level which requires the reporting of an individual's name to the FEC.

Once you know that, the rest of Mitchell's complaints about what is or is not a small donor falls by the wayside.

4. Even putting aside all this, the report relates, deep within, that Obama, in fact, received donations under $200 from a staggering 2.5 million people -- completely unprecedented. A closer look at the actual figures show that Obama got over $115 million from these donors -- while the other three ever got only in the range of $40 to $50 million. The study also notes that Obama's 2.5 million donors equaled the combined number of such donors for all candidates in 2004. Yet the media is now being accused of pushing the "myth" that there was something extraordinary about Obama's relation to small donors. Even accepting the report's definition, Obama received twice as much "small funding" as did Hillary Clinton

Of course, Mitchell's analysis here fails to note that the primary reason Obama was able to break all these fund-raising records was because he was the first major party candidate since the Watergate-era to shun public financing in the general election.

5. Also buried in the report is that, guess what -- McCain likely topped Obama by at least $10 million in the really big funds put together by "bundlers." The only place he held an advantage.

Irrelevant to your original thesis. I thought this was a defense of Obama's unprecedented small-donor fund-raising operation and all of the sudden I get a McCain got more big money from bundlers item?

6. Finally, for now, also getting little attention in the press reports on the study is this line: "Forty-seven percent of Obama's money came from large donors compared to 56% for Kerry and 60% for both Bush and McCain." Yes, this is not night-and-day -- but still, gives lie to the spin that claims the report showed there was very little difference between the Obama funding and past campaigns.

Again. Non sequitir.

Mitchell's effort to discredit the CFI's study discredits himself. Journalists at the New York Times, USA Today and Los Angeles Times -- still trying to appear non-partisan -- manage to see what's before their eyes. But Mitchell will hold fast to the Obama hagiography.


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December 2008



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