'08 Money Race: Some Nickel-and-Diming It

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidates are using low-cost tickets to fundraisers, online contests and concerts featuring pop stars to lure a group they hope will give them an edge: donors who contribute in small amounts.

Republican Mitt Romney last month staged a $100-per-person fundraiser, targeting young professionals. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton recently drew a crowd of 8,000 to a $20-a-ticket event. Democrat Barack Obama is treating four of his small donors to a dinner with him Tuesday; each gave $25 or less.

Small donors can be the lifeblood of a campaign, giving it a resource to tap for more money and volunteers during a lengthy presidential race.

However, political experts say it's unclear whether having legions of small contributors will result in success: Just ask Democrat Howard Dean, who raised 61% of his campaign cash from small donors, only to stumble in the early voting states in 2004.

"Money is only important if it translates into votes," said Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor and campaign-finance expert at the University of Southern California. "Lots of small donations suggest that there will be votes behind those donations," she said, but winning also requires the ability to spend money wisely and run solid get-out-the-vote operations in key primary states.

Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg agrees that early fundraising success and excitement — even among small donors — is no guarantee of capturing the presidency.

In 2004, "all of the momentum was with Howard Dean. It was money. It was endorsements. It was enthusiasm. Then, he got to Iowa," Rothenberg said, referring to Dean's third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

When the presidential nominating contests begin in six months, Rothenberg said, "folks in states like Iowa and New Hampshire will use a different prism to evaluate the candidates. … It will be: Who can be the next president of the United States?"

Small donors are defined as those who give $200 or less to a campaign, and candidates aren't required to disclose details about the contributions or their donors on campaign-finance reports.

The top presidential fundraisers, such as New York Sen. Clinton, rely on large donations of $2,300 each — the most a donor can give to a candidate for one election.

For some long-shot campaigns, small donors are their foundation.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who trails far behind other Republicans in polls and money, received 76% of his campaign funds in the first three months of the year from small donors, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. That's the largest percentage of money from small donors for any White House contender.

Most of the donors support Tancredo's vocal opposition to illegal immigration, spokesman Alan Moore said. The campaign does not have a final count of its donors, but estimated the average donation is about $60. Small donors "have been keeping his campaign going," Moore said. "God bless them."

Obama, who leads the Democratic field in fundraising, touts his donor base as a sign of grass-roots strength. Since January, he has collected money from 258,000 people and has the largest percentage of cash, 22%, from small donors.

Clinton has not disclosed how many donors she added to the 60,000 who supported her in the first three months of the year. Nearly 75% of her donations in the first quarter came from large donors, according to the center.

Christina Cheatham, a senior at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, gave Obama $5 as part of an Internet contest. His campaign staged the contest to raise last-minute cash before the second quarter ended June 30.

Her donation, along with an essay, landed her a spot at Tuesday night's dinner. Cheatham, 21, voted for President Bush in 2004 but said she's backing Obama because she views him as a different breed of politician.

"I wanted a leader who's optimistic," she said.

Haile Rivera, a New York food bank employee; Michael Griffith, a miner from Fernley, Nev.; and Margaret Thomas-Jordan of Gonzales, La., whose husband is serving in Iraq, also attended the dinner with Obama.