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Small donor spin

A Mitt Romney campaign announcement declaring its latest fundraising figures raised a few eyebrows on our team -- not because of the amount of money that was raised, but rather because of how the campaign characterized its contributors. The press release highlighted that "84% Of All Donations Received Through The End Of March Were $250 Or Less," which seems to suggest a groundswell of grassroots support for the former governor. While the percentage the campaign cites is correct, it doesn't illustrate the role small donors play in the campaign's overall fundraising. A closer look at the numbers reveals that in fact, a majority of Romney's money has come from people who donated the maximum amount of $2,500 -- 64 percent through March, according to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI). 

What the "84 percent" figure really means is that roughly 8 out of 10 checks received by the Romney campaign were $250 or less, not that 84% of the campaign's total fundraising came from checks of that size. The press release says these donations have totaled $11.6, or 13 percent of the nearly $87 million the campaign has raised so far. But even that doesn't tell the whole story, since it can include donors who have cumulatively given more than $250 in smaller increments -- for instance, 2,500 checks in the amount of $1. The CFI weeds out these repeat contributors once they cross certain donation thresholds. We had the CFI crunch the numbers for $250 and they found just 11 percent of Romney's cash has come from contributions of $250 or less. When you compare this to his rival, the CFI found 49 percent of the president's fundraising has come from donors who gave $250 or less.

It's important to note that $250 is a somewhat arbitrary figure. Reports typically refer to "small donors" as those who have given $200 or less, as those contributions are filed as "unitemized" with the FEC. The Romney campaign's April FEC file shows his campaign pulled in $9.1 million from small donations through March 31, which is 10.5 percent of its total fundraising (according to the CFI, that falls to just under 9 percent if you exclude repeat donors who have cumulatively have given more than $200). On the other hand, Obama for America's latest filing shows $85 million, or 57.9% of his total haul so far, has come from small donor contributions (44 percent by the CFI calculation).

Team Romney appears eager to tout its small donor support, but looking inside their books shows his campaign is overwhelmingly funded by large checks. The campaign is certainly looking to appeal to more small donors. Currently $5 buys you a chance to "Grab a Bite with Ann," and in March a $3 donation gave you a chance to watch a baseball game with the Romney family.

Added pressure for Team Romney is that nearly two-thirds of his money is from supporters who have maxed out their contributions. Not only does the president hold a tremendous advantage in tapping small donors, but just 16 percent of his cash has come from those who have given the full $2,500.