Small Donations and the Changing Realm of Campaign Finance

As I progressed in my research for the paper, I began to focus on popular participation in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, particularly the large amount of money Obama raised through small donations to his political campaign ($181 million). I began to question whether this small donor paradigm would continue in light of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which has led to the creation of Super PACs and huge sums of money spent on independent expenditures in elections – over double the amount of previous elections. I was surprised to discover that, thus far in the 2012 election, small donations to candidates have continued to play a prevalent role. Although Mitt Romney’s campaign has as of February 2012 received only 10% of its donations in micro-donations of under $200, most other major candidates have receive a substantial amount of their contributions from such donors, with Ron Paul receiving 51%, Rick Santorum at 49%, Newt Gingrich at 48%, and Barack Obama at 46%. These figures surprised me at a time when many commentators have widely predicted that elections will now be bankrolled by large donors and corporations at the expense of the average citizen.

I believe that there are several key reasons as to why small donations have continued to flourish in the face of massive amounts of independent spending. First, as Obama’s 2008 campaign demonstrated, small donations can raise a significant amount of money. The Internet has played a major role in this change, allowing candidates to solicit donations from thousands of individuals who would not otherwise contribute to federal campaigns. Second, federal law limits direct contributions to candidates to $2,500, a relatively low limit. In light of the limitations on direct contributions, virtually any contribution to a candidate is of value. Only if limitations on direct contributions to candidates are struck down as unconstitutional are small donations likely to diminish in value to candidates. This is unlikely to occur in the near future; however, even if the High Court invalidates these restrictions, candidates may continue to solicit small donations. Small donations represent an investment in a candidate, and large amounts of small donations reflect the “grassroots” nature of a campaign, an attribute that many candidates are eager to ascribe to their campaigns. Accordingly, I believe that even given the shifted campaign finance landscape, small donations are safe for the foreseeable future.

I’ve very much enjoyed working on this paper, and I look forward to the Spring Conference!


About Alex Fullman

School: University of Southern California Graduation Year: 2013 Major: Political Science and Communication Research topic: Charisma and Social Media: Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential Campaign
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