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Obama Finished Campaign With Money To Spare

A month after the election, a new disclosure report by President-elect Obama shows that he raised nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in his run for the White House.

In fact, by almost any measure of political money now, Obama holds the record. From Oct. 16 through Nov. 24, the 40 days covered by the post-election report, 1.1 million donors gave a total of $104 million to Obama's campaign. Of those contributors, 547,000 had never given before, the campaign says. Overall, the campaign has 3.95 million donors.

In the final 19 days before the election, candidate Obama spent nearly $62 million on TV airtime. Republican John McCain spent less than $10 million.

Obama's fundraising surpassed the combined total of all the candidates in 2004, which was a record-setting year itself.

A group of political scientists convened a meeting on fundraising and other campaign topics Thursday — just before the reports came out, but after everyone knew pretty much what was coming.

Tony Corrado of Colby College noted that McCain had a not-so-shabby campaign budget of $277 million. "Sen. McCain had more money than John Kerry raised in 2004, and it looks like he's going to finish just shy of the amount that President Bush generated in 2004," Corrado said. "So he had an extraordinarily well-funded campaign. His problem was that he faced a financial behemoth."

And it was a behemoth that went beyond the realm of individual candidates. Corrado said Obama collected more money than the Democratic and Republican national committees together, "so that his campaign has essentially become a party unto itself."

As of Nov. 24, Obama still had $30 million in the bank. He has several options for that cash, including transferring it to the DNC, or using it to make small donations to political allies. The most powerful option may be simply to hold the money for a re-election bid in 2012, giving himself a head start that would make any challenger think twice.

Obama attained these financial heights by spurning the public financing system for both the primaries and the general election. He is the first major-party candidate to opt out of the fall-season public funds since the system took effect in 1976.

McCain opted into the system for the fall campaign. He received $84.1 million from the federal treasury, but that was also his spending cap.

Significance Of Small Donors

The Obama campaign contended that it had its own version of public financing, including lots of small donors who gave small amounts repeatedly, until they became not-so-small donors.

Obama campaign counsel Bob Bauer said this new category of donors made the difference. "It did not seem to us at the time that there was any particular reason, for old times' sake, to take on a system, to join a system that had been declared to be broken," he told the academics. "There was no moral or other imperative for us to walk down that path."

Bauer is hardly the only one to see that Obama's fundraising success poses new questions about campaign finance law. Congress is under pressure to fix the public financing system — a program that, like other controls on political money, has its justification in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.

With the rise of a new donor class, Massie Ritsch, at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, frames the basic question as "whether these people who are giving $20 a month and might add up to $2,000 donors are really as fat a cat as the person who is dropping $2,300 at an event where they are meeting the candidate in person."

Ritsch points out that in modern politics, the fattest of fat cats are so-called bundlers — those who round up large contributions and deliver them, in metaphorical bundles, to the campaign.

"I don't think there's great concern that the person even giving a couple thousand dollars to a candidate raising three-quarters of a billion is going to be corrupting that candidate," he said in an interview. "But there is concern that the person who is able to raise those large contributions, adding up to more than half a million or a million dollars, might have the potential to corrupt or get some sort of payback in return."

Obama had more than 600 bundlers. He disclosed some information about them, but not much. Any disclosure is voluntary, because there's no law compelling the campaigns to identify their bundlers.

One more report is due from the Obama and McCain campaigns, closing out the year and the two-year campaign cycle. Those documents are due at the Federal Election Commission Jan. 31.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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