$ 150 million worth of speech
The Obama Campaign announced Sunday that it raised $ 150 million in September, an obscene, record-breaking figure that more than doubles the previous record (which was Obama’s haul in August). This certainly justifies Obama’s decision to opt-out of public financing. What is especially interesting to me is that 3.1 million people have contributed to his campaign, including more than 630,000 new contributors in September. And the average donation was around $ 86. Of course, by definition “average” means there were donations of more than that, including several large fund-raising events, including one hosted by Barbra Streisand that netted $ 11 million.
But I would like to hear how these numbers–donors, new donors, average donation amount–compare with past primary and general elections. And what do these numbers tell us about the debate over campaign-finance rules and public funding? The theory of Buckley v. Valeo (which never has been entirely repudiated) is that making campaign contributions is a First-Amendment protected way of expressing support for a candidate, albeit a right subject to fairly close regulation and limitations in amount (a principle with which I generally agree). The theory of campaign-finance regulation has been that politicians will simply cozy-up to a small number of big-money donors who use large contributions to gain access and influence, resulting in various forms of corruption (indeed, that was the warning from the McCain Campaign in response to the Obama announcement).
But if a campaign can fund itself, at least in part, on smaller contributions from a substantial number of voters looking to do their part and have their say, do we come close (or at least closer) to a First-Amendment regime of “The People” speaking through their pocketbooks to support a candidate, without the same risk of corruption or influence-peddling? I think McCain’s criticism misses the mark because the corruption rationale works when a campaign receives $ 2 million from one contributor; it looks very different, and has a different effect, when the campaign receives $ 2 million from 20,000 contributors. The corruption criticism looks out of place when it becomes not a problem with the amounts of money people are able to contribute (which remain restricted), but of the number of people who are able to contribute, particularly in small amounts.
Can what Obama has achieved tell us anything about how candidate fundraising can work, especially with the power of the internet? Is Obama a unique candidate and no (or few) other candidate can generate this kind of excitement and support?
Updated and moved to top: Tuesday morning
Publius at Obsidian Wings links Obama’s expansive fundraising to Madison’s theory of republicanism. Recall that Madison argued that the way to limit the power of factions in a republic is to increase the size of the republic and thus the number of factions, preventing any one from seizing control. Similarly, dramatically expanding the size of the donor base, the Obama model (and Publius recognizes, as does one of our commenters, that Howard Dean started us down this road in 2004) prevents any one donor from gaining influence.