Investigative reporter Bill Dedman of msnbc.com
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/23/2008 5:26:11 PM ET 2008-09-23T21:26:11

Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Ohio's Ashtabula County. Winnebago County, Wisconsin.

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These are the counties where the 2008 presidential election may be decided. They're battleground counties in the battleground states. In the 15 states considered up for grabs this election, there are 238 counties where the last presidential election was very close.

New data on contributions to the presidential campaigns indicates that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is leading the race for campaign cash in those counties. Through August, Obama raised more money in 168 — or 70 percent — of those counties, according to the latest fundraising numbers released this week. The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, has raised more money in 69 counties. One county (Traverse, Minn.) showed no donations reported for either candidate. Only in one of the battleground states — Ohio — did McCain win the majority of these tightly contested counties.

You can check out the fundraising in each county in the U.S. We've updated our national map showing the money reported by McCain and Obama. Click for the map. And we're making available the full data files for all the counties, so you can find your own patterns. (See below.)

There's no guarantee that campaign donations are a reliable predictor of voting. But the patterns may indicate a level of enthusiasm among the supporters of each candidate, and in any case they provide tea leaves for political junkies to interpret.

The money tally so far in the battlefield counties:

Other tidbits from the latest campaign finance data, with details below:

  • McCain had already won three of the four weeks in August, in terms of individual donations reported, even before a bounce at the end of the month after he chose his running mate.
  • Only three of the top 25 donating counties in the nation have given more to McCain. Grist for McCain's claim that Obama is the coastal candidate: Obama's dominance in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco...
  • The most reliable money pots for Obama, where hardly anyone gives money to McCain, start with Prince George's County, Maryland, and Brooklyn, New York.
  • McCain's sure things begin with Vero Beach, Florida, and Jackson, Mississippi. Hardly an Obama donor there.
  • McCain is pitching more shutouts than Obama. In far more counties than McCain, Obama has reported no donations.
  • And although Obama is swamping McCain in the number of small donations...
  • ... it's not unusual for McCain to raise a larger total of money in those same counties.

Methodology: Msnbc.com selected the counties by looking at the 15 states considered up for grabs. Within those states, we selected the counties where the 2004 margin of actual votes separating President Bush and Sen. John Kerry was less than 7 percent. Msnbc.com included all the donations reported by the candidates, including those under $200, which usually are not analyzed. The contributions of a small donor may not be reported until that donor reaches a $200 threshold, at the discretion of the candidates. Because Obama has consistently had more small donors, the totals for counties probably underreport his fundraising by a greater extent than McCain's. Still, msnbc.com's analysis includes every individual donation reported by the candidates. Msnbc.com also looked at the pattern of giving by county, matching the ZIP Codes of donors to counties.

The Palin money bounce -- how long will it last?
Looking at the donations week by week, only in six weeks of the first 36 weeks of the year did McCain bring in more money than Obama. But three of those weeks were the first three weeks of August, before naming Sarah Palin as his running mate.

On Aug. 29, the announcement of Palin gave a clear boost to McCain, at least for the next day. Aug. 30 was the only day that week when McCain reported more donations than Obama.

We'll have to wait a month to see the fundraising effect of Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 3.

Top 25 big-money counties
Of the top 25 counties by amount given to either candidate, McCain is leading the money race in only Maricopa County (Phoenix), Ariz.; Harris County (Houston), Texas; and Orange County (Santa Ana), Calif.

Places you won't see Sarah Palin campaigning
The 20 big-money counties (in the top 200 nationwide) tilting most heavily to Obama:

Places you won't find Joe Biden on the train
The 20 big-money counties (in the top 200 nationwide) tilting most heavily to McCain:

Shutouts
McCain is pitching more shutouts than Obama. There are 296 counties where McCain has raised at least something, but Obama hasn't reported a single dollar. The reverse is true in only 177 counties.

The biggest nothings for Obama: Shackelford County (Albany), Texas, where McCain raised $20,276; and Mitchell County (Camilla), Ga, $17,025.

The biggest nothing for McCain: Callaway County (Fulton), Mo., where Obama raised $11,606; and Macon County (Tuskegee), Ala., $10,825.

Obama swamps McCain in small donations
Through August, Obama reported 1,028,508 contributions of less than $200, compared with 180,388 for McCain.

Small donors accounted for 74 percent of the individual checks written to Obama, compared with 53 percent for McCain.

Larger average donations to McCain
It's not unusual for Obama to have more donations in a county where McCain raised more money.

For example, in Hamilton County, Tenn., which includes Chattanooga, Obama outscored McCain in the number of checks received, 816 to 472, but raised less money overall. McCain reported a third more money than Obama in that county, $181,187 to $136,214.

Across the nation, 664 counties fit that pattern: More checks for Obama, but more money for McCain. Only 65 counties had the opposite pattern: More checks for McCain, but more money for Obama.

Through the entire campaign, Obama has reported a total of $270,058,400 from 1,383,006 donations, an average of $195 per donation. Donations under $200 account for 22 percent of Obama's total.

McCain reported $128,292,085 from 339,535 donations, an average of $378. Donations under $200 account for 10 percent of McCain's total.

Pennsylvania: worries for Obama and McCain
Looking closely at two of the battleground states, here's the money race in the battleground counties. First, Pennsylvania:

A county that might worry Obama: Lehigh (Allentown), which Kerry took in 2004, and which has given to McCain by a ratio of 2 to 1 this time around.

A county that might worry McCain: Chester (West Chester), which Bush took in 2004, and which has given to Obama by a ratio of 2 to 1.

Ohio: McCain leads in more battleground counties
Here's the money race in the battleground counties of Ohio:

The national picture
In counties across the nation, Obama has outraised McCain in 1,389 counties, while McCain has drawn more money in 1,606. (Only counties in the 50 states and D.C. are in these totals, not Puerto Rico and other areas.)

The narrowness of that tally may be surprising. Any county-by-county map of the U.S. is heavily red, with Republicans generally winning in the vast open spaces. In actual votes in 2004, Bush drew more votes than Kerry in 8 out of 10 counties: 2,530 to 583.

Here's the state-by-state money race in all counties with donations recorded:

Excel files with the full county picture
Besides our online file of counties, you can download Excel files with money raised in the 238 battleground counties or money raised in counties in every state. Counties will be listed in those files only if candidates reported donations from ZIP Codes associated with those counties. Click for the files.

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