Small donors still the backbone of Barack Obama's election hopes

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The devil is in the details; in order to find him, just follow the money.

The 2012 election is finally taking shape, and Mitt Romney, the proverbial businessman in a bowler hat, leads the pack of Republican challengers to President Barack Obama.

In 2008, senior strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe led the president’s Chicago-based team in developing a never-before-seen multimedia election platform, collecting a vast amount of money and support from average Americans. Using the tools of the Internet age, President Obama built a coalition of young adults, students, African-Americans, Latinos and constituency groups from Los Angeles to Colorado, and North Carolina to Florida, giving him an organizational edge over Hillary Clinton and, eventually, John McCain.

Obama’s success was not simply a matter of the hope and change he inspired, but was mostly due to a well-oiled, well-funded campaign machine. The unique aspect of this success is that the majority of Obama’s donations were less than $250 — with the vast majority being $5, $10 or $25. Average working Americans, who could not afford to give much, showed support for the young Senator from Illinois, whose message resonated.

Less than two years later, a seemingly unbiased, non-political U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision which allows corporations and individuals to gift unlimited amounts of money to political action committees. Citizens effectively gave birth to Goliath — they changed the landscape of campaign financing, and created a world where corporate tycoons and a small handfull of billionaires and multi-millionaires can essentially launder money through “Super PACs”, and use that influence to promote agendas and win elections.

According to Federal Election Committee data for donations up until January 31, 2012 — President Obama’s campaign had raised roughly $105 million, 80 percent of which was made up of small donations under $200 each. This flies in the face of media reports of Republican candidates funded solely by a small group of very wealthy donors.

A quick look at the remaining GOP field shows the heavy hand of Super PACs. Newt Gingrich, whose official campaign has been in the red for months, has managed to stay afloat through one billionaire investor, Sheldon Adelson, who has given just over $11 million to Winning Our Future — the pro-Gingrich Super PAC.

Likewise, Rick Santorum, who once was the true underdog of the race, originally campaigned on a shoestring budget, until he found the support of billionaire Foster Friess, a religious conservative who was happy to invest in Santorum following his win in the Iowa Caucuses.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul has a quiet investor in San Francisco billionaire Peter Thiel, allowing the unlikely Republican nominee to continue campaigning and building a libertarian platform.

A CNN/Opinion Research Survey, conducted in June of last year, found that 86 percent of the public think elected officials are mostly influenced by pressure they receive from campaign contributors.

The smaller the pool, the more infected the waters.

At a private three-day retreat in California in January, conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch — along with nearly 300 of their business partners and allies — pledged $100 million to defeat President Obama in the 2012 elections.

But this anti-Obama engine isn’t the only example of Super PAC influence, as Republican Primary voters have experienced first-hand the record amounts of money spent on negative campaign ads — a point Newt Gingrich decried as being responsible for his failure in Florida, and other early voting districts. Romney’s well-funded campaign and Super PAC unleashed a barrage of ads on the former House Speaker, revealing an inconvenient truth that money buys influence, which shapes perception and translates into currency at the ballot box.

President Obama is not immune.

In 2010, speaking before Congress in his annual State of the Union Address, the president called the invention of Super PACs by the Supreme Court Citizens decision, “a threat to our democracy.” But now, in light of challenges he faces, has been forced to participate.

Idealistic as he may be, the president is all too aware he’s up against a prolific Republican establishment, hell-bent on his demise. For fear of bringing a knife to a gun fight, Obama has expressed reluctant support for Priorities USA, a Super PAC led by Bill Burton, his former deputy press secretary. And already, it’s causing waves.

Only last week, the PAC garnered unwanted media attention, when comedian-turned-political commentator Bill Maher donated $1 million in aid of Obama’s reelection campaign. The donation highlights the power and influence inherent in what many are calling the rise of American plutocracy — and reveals the every growing gap between rich and poor: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent.

Mocked and criticized by the likes of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, a life-long Democrat who established his own Super PAC in order to draw light to the corrupt nature of these institutions, the president is forced to walk a fine line, as he navigates the realities of political financing.

But the FEC figures bear out a nuanced truth: namely, that even in the age of Super PACs, President Obama’s greatest support still comes largely from the masses. Small donors, middle-income individuals, ordinary people who still believe in the promise of hope and change.

This bodes well for a man whose moral opposition to the war in Iraq is what first differentiated him from other Washington insiders, giving him the connection and platform he required to stand on the national, and now global, stage. It’s that same moral compass which must be firmly in place as he accepts Super PAC support, yet vows to change the rules of campaign financing in a second-term.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.