$ 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.

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5 Responses

  1. TRE says:

    Note that they don’t specificly which average they are talking about.

  2. A.W. says:

    Um… or here is possibility #2… a substantial part of those small donations are actually larger donations broken into little chunks.

    Which only demonstrates how completely wrongheaded all this campaign finance reform is, anyway. You can’t take money out of politics without squelching freedom in general.

    If you limit direct donations, then the big money guys will just give to 527s.

    If you limit 527s, and limit speech to established channels, then interests will buy their own network (see, e.g. Air America and NRA’s cable channel).

    And then from there the only way to control that money is to control the channels themselves.

    And so on.

    We are halfway down that fascist road and it is time to stop going further down it, back up and restore freedom.

    I think philosophically the mistake we have been making here is thinking of this in terms of speech, and not press. But even though TV and radio are spoken words, both TV, Radio and the press represent mass media. In the case of the freedom of the press, there is no question that an infrastructure is needed and thus you can violate freedom of the press by controlling their infrastructure.

    The numerous cases reducing liablity for defamation of public figures was a classic example of this recognition. Lawsuits cost money and thus it was recognized that lawsuits were a mortal threat to freedom of the press, thus the courts curtailed the suits. It is hard to see how the outflow of money threatens the freedom of expression, but not the reduction of the inflow of money.

  3. bill says:

    @A.W.:

    “a substantial part of those small donations are actually larger donations broken into little chunks”

    Remember, that the campaign claims – and even Fox News reports — over 630,000 new contributors in Sept., not 630,000 different contributions. If you have proof of some kind of chicanery, cite it. Otherwise, you’re just casting out unsourced sleaze.

    http://elections.foxnews.com/2008/10/20/obama-raises-record-breaking-m/

  4. A.W. says:

    Bill

    You should also check out NRO’s The Corner. They have been covering how obama’s website intentionally removed measures to protect against fraud in their online donation process so that people can donate to him with names like Kim Jung Il, and so on.