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Small donors become big political force

One of the most striking phenomena of the 2004 political campaign is the rise of the small donor. It is not just the amount of money flowing to Republicans and Democrats that is setting records this campaign season. The number of individuals who are giving and raising money, often for the first time, is unprecedented, too.
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Tom Joyce is nobody's idea of a political activist. During his 24 years in the Navy, including a stint at the Pentagon, Joyce, 47, said he was "completely apolitical." He never volunteered for, or contributed to, a political campaign.

But that was then. Last month, Joyce, now a pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, wrote a $100 check to President Bush's reelection campaign. "I have a lot of concerns about [John] Kerry," Joyce said of the president's Democratic opponent. "When you look at his voting record in the Senate, he's just been incredibly liberal."

Yasmin Netervala, 42, has similarly strong feelings and not much more political experience. The Los Angeles airlines operation manager only once worked for a candidate -- Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 -- and had never contributed a dollar. After living in France a few years ago, she said she grew more interested in French politics than the American kind.

This year, Netervala is not only writing a check to the campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). She's also organizing a $50-a-head fundraiser that she hopes will bring in $10,000. "I'm really disillusioned by what's going on in the world right now," she said. "We need to do something, even if it's on a small scale."

Multiply the contributions of Joyce and Netervala a few hundred thousand times and you have one of the most striking phenomena of the 2004 political campaign: the rise of the small donor. It is not just the amount of money flowing to Republicans and Democrats that is setting records this campaign season. The number of individuals who are giving and raising money, often for the first time, is unprecedented, too.

Once the domain of the stereotypical fat cat, campaign contributions are now flowing from deep within the grass roots. Driven by partisanship, technology and changes in campaign-finance laws -- the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned large direct contributions to the political parties -- campaign cash has become democratized.

Bush's reelection team said it has received a donation from at least one person in every county in America. Although the majority of Bush's contributions have come from people who have given the maximum ($2,000) allowed by law, smaller donors are playing a role, too. Campaign officials say about 833,000 individuals have contributed some money to Bush's reelection effort, compared with 345,000 during the 2000 election.

The Republican National Committee said it received donations from more than a million first-time contributors during the first three years of Bush's presidency (average contribution: $29.80). "Our small-donor base has just mushroomed," said Ed Gillespie, the RNC chairman.

Democrats are rolling on a river of money, too. Although his campaign has collected less than half of what Bush has raked in, Kerry is quickly closing the gap with the help of lots of small checks. From January to March, Kerry raised nearly $55 million, the most a presidential candidate has ever raised in a quarter. The previous record was held by Bush, who ginned up $50 million during one three-month period last year. By the Kerry campaign's count, about 400,000 people have donated.

The 10 Democratic presidential candidates collectively raised $205.9 million from individuals -- about 13 percent more than Bush.

'Energized donor base'
"I've been doing this [fundraising] for 25 years, and I never expected what I'm seeing today," said Terence McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "We have a unified party, a great candidate and an energized donor base. I call it a perfect storm."

McAuliffe estimated that 70 percent of the people who gave money to the DNC in the past three years were first-time contributors. This has helped the DNC wipe out its debts and wean itself of now-banned large "soft-money" contributions from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.

The number of small donors to Republicans and Democrats alike has soared since the last election, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington. A third of the money given to the Democratic candidates in this election cycle was in amounts less than $200; in the 2000 election, only 17 percent of the contributions were that small. Bush has doubled his percentage of under-$200 donations, from 10 percent in 2000 to 20 percent this year. Over the same time, the percentage of $1,000-or-more donations to Bush has remained almost flat.

Tens of thousands of individual contributions have also bankrolled a hodgepodge of independent political groups, known as "527s," that run voter-registration drives, issue-advocacy campaigns and, in a few cases, anti-Bush ads. Bush campaign officials, among others, have argued that the 527s, named for the tax code section that covers them, are illegal because they use large, unregulated soft money contributions that national political parties can no longer accept under the McCain-Feingold law. Conservatives point out that billionaire George Soros has contributed millions to two 527s, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and America Coming Together, a progressive organization that is registering voters in 17 closely contested states.

But MoveOn's co-founder, Wes Boyd, said his group has tapped more than just a few wealthy sources. Of the $17 million raised by the anti-Bush MoveOn.org Voter Fund, he said, $11 million came from about 160,000 people who pledged an average of about $69. "It's clear that people are very anxious to be heard," Boyd said. "This idea of lots of individuals putting together their resources and working together to amplify their voices is a good thing. It's a good thing for democracy."

People who contribute to political campaigns are not only highly likely to vote but also to participate in other ways. "These are the people who also volunteer," Gillespie said. "They're involved."

Heightened partisanship
The most common explanation for the increasing number of contributors is heightened partisan feelings -- the cleaving of the electorate into "red" and "blue" camps. Howard Dean turned rhetorical assaults on the Bush administration into record-setting campaign contributions, mostly small. The often vitriolic exchanges from the Bush and Kerry campaigns have generated a flood of checks.

A sense of frustration with the Bush administration persuaded Fernando A. Amandi to change his political loyalties and make his first campaign donations. A lifelong Republican, Amandi, 55, said he has become so "disgruntled and disenchanted" with Bush's policies toward Latin America, particularly Cuba, that he is backing Kerry.

In addition to his own contributions, Amandi has held two Kerry fundraisers at his home, raising more than $100,000.

Technology has made it easier and less costly to extract money from constituents and others. During the 2004 campaign, the Internet has matured as a fundraising tool: Kerry has raised a third of his money online; Bush has received only about 3 percent of his this way.

According to Michael Cornfield, a George Washington University professor who studies the Internet's political impact, the Internet has encouraged "impulse" giving, much in the same way that shop-at-home TV channels create impulse purchases. "You can give two moments after you've seen something that motivates you to give," said Cornfield, the author of "Politics Moves Online."

But the Internet is just one tool at a fundraiser's disposal. The old-fashioned ways into donors' hearts and wallets -- mail, phone and events -- have been abetted by bigger, better and more refined databases of would-be contributors. In the last four months, the DNC mailed 35 million fundraising letters, more than it sent out during the 1990s.

When McAuliffe speaks of his party being "unified," he means it in the dialing-for-dollars sense, too. All of the Democratic candidates who have dropped out of the race have turned over their donor lists to the DNC, giving the party a list of prospects that is 2 million strong. Bush's campaign say its e-mail list includes 6 million names.