Obama & Ron Paul's Small Donor Revolution Must Continue


Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Ron Paul made waves during the 2008 presidential election for the large sums they raised from people making small contributions of $200 or less.

On Thursday, four prominent campaign finance reform advocates said fostering this small-donor enthusiasm was vital to the country’s political health.

“It’s time to focus on empowerment,” Michael Malbin, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, said during an unveiling on a new report at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “We want to find a way to get more people to invest the time and effort to get involved and stay involved.”

"Instead of trying to further restrict the wealthy few, we seek to activate the many,” added co-author Thomas Mann, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Reforms that support more citizen engagement and small-donor giving would likely generate more competition for state and federal races, lead to the emergence of more candidates and reduce corruption on both sides of the aisle, argued Malbin and Mann, along with their co-authors Norm Ornstein, co-director of the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Election Reform Project, and Anthony Corrado, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who also chairs the Campaign Finance Institute’s board of trustees.

Corrado, Malbin, Mann and Ornstein outlined their recommendations in their new report. The report is titled, “Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns: How to Foster Citizen Participation through Small Donors and Volunteers.” (It is available here as a pdf file).

The authors noted that Obama raised 30 percent of his funds from individuals who contributed $200 or less during the extended primary season. And during the 2008 general election, he raised 34 percent of his funds from individuals who contributed $200 or less. This amount alone is higher than the amount Obama would have received under public funding, which he opted out of for both the primary and the general elections.

By contrast, the study authors said, just 22 percent of the funds that Democrat Hillary Clinton raised from individuals came from people who contributed $200 or less. And Republican John McCain raised only 21 percent of his money from individuals from those who gave $200 or less. (Paul, for his part, raised 39 percent of his money from individuals from those who gave $200 or less).

The authors also said that during the 2004 presidential election, of the money raised from individuals, Democratic Party presidential nominee John Kerry raised 20 percent of his money from individuals who contributed $200 or less, while Republican incumbent George W. Bush raised 26 percent of his money from individuals who gave $200 or less.

Furthermore, the authors said that Obama not only successfully used an Internet-savvy campaign to generate a steady stream of online contributions, but that he was a particularly charismatic candidate and benefited from increased interest in his attempt to become the nation’s first black president. For other candidates to emulate this success in widespread fashion, they argued public policy changes are necessary to create additional institutional support for small-donor contributions and increased citizen participation. Such policies, they argued, would also help down-ticket candidates -- who during the 2008 cycle actually saw less support from small donors than they did a decade ago -- reap benefits.

Chief among their recommendations for reform:

-- Affordable broadband Internet connections
-- Real-time and downloadable electronic campaign finance disclosures
-- The creation of a new website to serve as a one-stop shop for election-related information
-- The creation of a log of all radio and TV political advertising maintained on the Internet by the Federal Communications Commission
-- The creation of a new public financing system based on matching funds received from small donors, including a ceiling on the total amount of public money a candidate could receive
-- Tax credits or rebates for small donors
-- Maintaining contribution limits to candidates and political parties
-- Allowing political parties to make unlimited coordinated expenditures on behalf of candidates with funds raised from small donors.

The authors emphasized that their goal with this report was to shift the conversation away from the debate about regulation versus deregulation -- a debate that has been playing out for years in the courts, including in the recent high-profile campaign finance case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

As the authors’ report states: “We aim to promote equality and civic engagement by enlarging the participatory pie instead of shrinking it. The Supreme Court has ruled out pursuing equality or civic engagement by constraining speech. But the Court has never ruled out pursuing these goals through policies that do not constrain speech.”


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