Big rewards from small donors

Times Staff Writer

From his South Texas home, Chuck Barracato watches the news to see how Barack Obama is doing. When Barracato is moved by Obama’s message or senses that the Illinois senator could use some help, he digs into his savings and chips in $25 for the candidate’s presidential campaign.

Barracato’s payments, sent by computer click, add up to $700, maybe a little more. It’s not a big sum by the standards of political donations, but it’s enough to make Barracato part of a movement that some experts believe is reshaping presidential fundraising.

“I am grass-roots,” said Barracato, 68, a retired teacher who has gotten involved in the 2008 presidential campaign because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. “I am the itty-bitty guy behind the movement.”


As he battles Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama -- a onetime Chicago community organizer -- is increasingly relying on donors like Barracato to fuel his campaign.

Lately, the Obama fundraising approach has paid especially big dividends. It is easily outpacing Clinton’s money-gathering operation, which began the race with a massive financial advantage and has relied more heavily on traditional big donors.

Clinton, by contrast, recently lent her campaign $5 million to ease a financial squeeze. Although Clinton aides insist they have plenty of money to compete, the campaign faces crucial contests March 4 in Ohio and Texas that each figure to cost $5 million or more.

The role of small donors is heartening advocates of campaign finance reform. Small donors, by definition, are not insiders seeking special access or favors in exchange for their largesse.

Obama has attracted high-end contributors too, who give the maximum $2,300 allowed by federal law per candidate during the primary season. But he has been particularly adept at cultivating small givers.

His campaign has amassed a huge bank of e-mail addresses that it taps to reach donors like Barracato. Obama has squirreled them away since he came onto the national scene with his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention.


He also has gathered them at his rallies. And he has received e-mail addresses previously gathered by some of his major endorsers -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Move-, a political advocacy group.

The missives he sends are newsy and personalized with the prospective donor’s first name. They generally indicate a specific dollar amount or number of donors the campaign is trying to bring in, and explain how the money will be used.

“There is no question that Obama’s fundraising is a huge breakthrough,” MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser said, estimating that his organization’s donors have given at least $500,000 to Obama. “Clearly, he has hit this nail on the head in a way that no one has before. He has given people a real sense of ownership that makes them want to chip in.”

Obama raised $27.2 million in donations of $200 or less in 2007, compared with Clinton’s $11.6 million, Federal Election Commission reports show.

Measured another way, half of Clinton’s donations earmarked for the primary campaign came in increments of $2,300. By comparison, one-third of Obama’s money arrived in $2,300 chunks, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.

The difference could prove crucial in the weeks ahead. Obama has a far larger pool of donors to turn to for more money. His campaign says he has 650,000 donors, many just a click away from sending more funds. Clinton fundraisers confide that so many of their contributors have reached the $2,300 maximum that it can be hard to find people to hit up again.

For small donors such as John Cheever, a teacher, Obama has a magnetic appeal. “Corny as it sounds, it is the hope,” said Cheever, who regular sends in $25 or so. Cheever, who works at Punahou School, a private academy in Honolulu that Obama attended as a child, added: “I have been so distressed by the past seven years.”

Obama’s base of small donors provides benefits besides money. It has become his source of activists. Cheever has an Obama bumper sticker in the rear window of his 15-year-old Ford pickup. He plans to spend part of Saturday, his 38th birthday, making phone calls for Obama in advance of Hawaii’s vote Tuesday.

Although Obama’s fundraising was strong throughout 2007, it took off in January amid the candidate’s wins in Iowa and South Carolina, and even after he lost to Clinton in New Hampshire. The campaign announced that Obama had raised roughly $32 million during the month, an amount that towers over the one-month sum for any of the other presidential candidates.

Clinton raised about $14 million in January, her campaign announced. The official amounts won’t be known until next week, when candidates file reports with the election commission detailing their January receipts.

Compared with any other candidate in any prior race, Clinton and her fundraisers have “done a tremendous job. She has done everything right. The problem is that we are no longer in a traditional world,” said Darius Anderson, a Democratic fundraiser and lobbyist with offices in Sacramento and Washington who is not affiliated with the Clinton or Obama campaigns.

Although Clinton’s fundraising effort is known for attracting big donors and persuading them, in turn, to bring in other large contributors, the campaign says that its efforts with small donors have improved lately too.

That was especially apparent when Clinton disclosed, after last week’s Super Tuesday contests, her $5-million loan to the campaign. It triggered what aides said was a $10-million burst of donations within a few days. Until then, donors had assumed that “she had all the money she needed,” said Terry McAuliffe, Clinton’s campaign chairman.

“Something dramatic has happened,” added Peter Daou, who oversees Clinton’s online fundraising effort. “We now have a very powerful grass-roots base.”

The Clinton campaign is still going after big donors too. It is aided by supporters such as San Francisco’s Susie Tomkins Buell, founder of the Esprit clothing company. She estimates that she and her husband, Mark Buell, have held 15 fundraising events for the Clinton campaign. She plans to head to Texas later this month to help out further.

“When you take something for granted, and then it is not so sure anymore, it reinvigorates you, and you fight harder,” Buell said. “Hillary’s supporters are not going anywhere.”

Still, it’s the connections that the Obama campaign has made with people like John Cliff, 36, of Flower Mound, Texas, that are shaking up presidential campaign finance. Cliff has given Obama nearly $400, all in $25 and $50 increments. Cliff became inspired after reading Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father.”

Cliff is not a registered Democrat, something he must change if he is to vote in Texas’ March 4 primary. And he had never given to a politician until this year.

But Cliff, a products manager for a bank, understands what the political world has come to see: “By small and simple things, great things come to pass,” Cliff said.