This New York Times article is a wonderful example of the old adage about lies, damn lies, and statistics. Apparently relying upon widespread lack of understanding of mathematics and an inability or unwillingness to think critically about information, Jim Messina - President Obama's campaign manager - presents some shady numbers, and then points to them as evidence of “more grassroots support at this point in the process than any campaign in political history.” He's not lying, just statistic-ing.
The numbers are as follows:
- $86 million raised for the DNC and Obama's reelection campaign in the second quarter.
- 552,462 separate donors.
- Average contribution of $69.
- 98% of contributions under $250.
Well let's break out our calculators, shall we? 552,462 donors times an average donation of $69 equals... $38.1 million. But wait, Obama has raised $86 million! Huh? Where did the other $47.9 million come from?
Reading more closely tells you that the average contribution may be $69, but there's no indication as to how many donors have written multiple smaller checks, instead of one big one. In order for the math to work out, that $86 million required about 1.25 million separate donations, even if there were 552.462 separate donors. The actual average contribution per donor, meanwhile, is over $150.
That's starting to sound a little less "grassroots," no? Don't get me wrong, the sheer number of contributors here is impressive, and a great many of those - maybe as many as 98% - are average Joes and Johns contributing $20. But that's not where the bulk of Obama's funding comes from.
Unfortunately, given the numbers we have to work with here, we can't draw any certain conclusions about the percentage or amount of Obama's current campaign money that comes from corporate sources. For that matter, the Citizen's United vs. FEC ruling makes it nigh impossible to track that corporate money anyway. What we can do, however, is hypothesize. Let's assume that those 98% of donors giving $250 or less per donation are only donating once. After all, we're still over a year from the election, and I'm guessing Mr. Middle Class Obama Supporter isn't cutting multiple $50 checks to reelect the President right now.
If we assume that 98% of donors, then, are contributing an average of $69 overall (instead of per donation), we get the following:
- 98% of 552,462 donors is 541,412. An undeniably impressive number of grassroots donors, but far from the full story.
- Those donors have provided, following this hypothesis, about $37.4 million.
- That means the remaining 11,050 donors have contributed, across multiple donations each, $48.6 million.
- The average, then, amount of money donated by each of those 11,050 donors is roughly $4,400 dollars.
Remember that we're still well over a year away from the election. That's a lot of money from a small number of people for just one fiscal quarter's worth of fundraising. It's not unreasonable to assume that a small subset of those 10,000 donors - whether they be individuals, oil companies, financial firms, or health insurance providers - will be contributing as much as $50,000 each by the end of the election cycle. Perhaps the President should be careful whilst pushing for closing loopholes and levying higher taxes on the wealthiest wage earners, lest they lose the ability to contribute so much to his campaign.
For all of the talk about "grassroots" and "yes we can," it's worth remembering that those grassroots contributions, no matter how you slice it, are not the bulk of Obama's campaign money. And when executive push comes to legislative shove, the golden rule wins out: he who has the gold, makes the rules.