Despite attracting millions of new contributors to his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama received about the same percentage of his total political funds from small donors as President Bush did in 2004, according to a study released today by the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute.
The analysis undercuts Obama's claim that his supporters "changed the way campaigns are funded" by reducing the influence of special-interest givers.
"The myth is that money from small donors dominated Barack Obama's finances," said Michael Malbin, the institute's executive director. "The reality of Obama's fundraising was impressive, but the reality does not match the myth."
About $156 million, or a quarter of Obama's record-shattering campaign account, came from donors of $200 or less, according to the institute's analysis of federal election reports through Oct. 15. That compares with $205 million, or about a third, from those who gave between $2,300 and $4,600, the maximum allowed by law.
Forty-eight percent of Obama's total take came from donors of $1,000 or more, compared with 56% for John Kerry and 60% for both Bush and John McCain, the analysis found.
The small-donor percentage is lower than figures previously reported in news stories because the institute's analysis accounted for people who gave several small donations over the course of the election that added up to a larger sum, Malbin said.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an e-mail that the campaign had more than 3.95 million donors, and "91% of our contributions were in amounts of $100 or less. … There's no doubt that small-dollar contributors played a critical and unprecedented role" in Obama's victory.
The study said Obama brought in a total $638 million, the most ever raised in a political campaign, compared with $206 million by McCain, who accepted $84.1 million in taxpayer financing for the general election. Obama reported 580,000 donors who gave more than $200.
Donors giving $200 or less need not be disclosed, but the difference between the number of donors provided by the Obama campaign and the number reported in federal election records shows there were about 3.4 million of them.
McCain reported 170,000 donors of $200 or more.
Obama opted out of public financing, raising private money through November and significantly outspending McCain in battleground states.
When Obama announced in June that he would forgo public financing, he told supporters in a video message that "instead of forcing us to rely on millions from Washington lobbyists and special-interest PACs, you've fueled this campaign with donations of $5, $10, $20, whatever you can afford. … You've already changed the way campaigns are funded, because you know that's the only way we can truly change how Washington works."
Meredith McGehee, a campaign-finance reform advocate at the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, said Obama cannot claim "this election somehow created an alternative system for public finance. … The data doesn't show that."
Obama did not accept contributions from political action committees or registered federal lobbyists, but many of his top fundraisers have keen economic interests in federal policies.