Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Could Big Donors Break Obama's Fundraising Record?

Barack Obama's presidential campaign was a fundraising juggernaut that changed all expectations about how much cash candidates might collect, especially over the Internet.

It's still unclear whether any candidate or organization will be able replicate the Obama campaign's success.

But the question has taken on new urgency: The Supreme Court is weighing a case that could potentially allow corporations and unions to pour unlimited amounts of cash into attack ads. And that, in turn, could force candidates to raise more money than ever to respond.

'Hard To Fathom' How Much Money

Obama's campaign almost exceeded the superlatives that were thrown its way last year. Roughly speaking, it raised slightly less than three quarters of a billion dollars — 40 percent more than the grand total for all candidates in the 2000 presidential race, just two elections ago.

Obama's campaign finances boiled down to three elements. He and his advisers learned how to captivate big donors who were hungry for a win. They learned how to move several million small donors to give, and give again. And with all the money that rolled in, the campaign could choose its battlegrounds.

Just one example: Indiana, a state that had been reliably Republican until 2008. State Republican Chairman Murray Clark was staggered by what the Obama money was able to buy — TV ads and campaign workers flooding his state.

"I hate to keep going back to money," he told NPR in October of 2008. "But I think it's hard for campaign and political veterans to fathom what kind of money the Obama campaign has."

Can It Be Done Again?

Now, going into the 2010 congressional midterm elections, can anyone duplicate the Obama money magic?

Political scientist Ray LaRaja says yes, they can.

La Raja is away from the fray, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says candidates have to start with a smart Internet strategy. But he quickly adds, "The ones who are best poised to get small donors are those who take sharp ideological positions, or those who are very charismatic, like President Obama."

Charisma and ideology collided on the evening of Sept. 9, when the president addressed Congress on health care and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted out, "You lie!"

Wilson says his cry from the heart touched off a $2 million tidal wave for his campaign from small donors across the country. His Democratic challenger, Rob Miller, said his own campaign netted $1.5 million. In the olden days — say, last year — that kind of money would have paid for a whole campaign in the rivals' rural district, from declaration of candidacy to post-election cleanup.

Big Donors Wait On A Court Decision

It's too soon to tell whether anybody can build a long-running fundraising machine like the Obama campaign.

It's also too soon to gauge another variable that could swing the money-and-influence pendulum away from small donors and back toward corporate America: the Supreme Court.

This fall, the high court may overturn a long-standing ban on corporate spending in political campaigns.

Trevor Potter, former campaign counsel to Obama rival John McCain and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says it's unlikely that the court would let corporations and unions contribute money directly to candidates. The federal law against such transactions dates back to 1907.

More likely, says Potter, the Supreme Court will let corporations and unions give to independent groups, which currently have little or no mandate to disclose their donors. The threat of potentially big, anonymous contributions underwriting attack ads would up the fundraising ante for candidates.

"They don't have to do this in every race," he said in an interview this week. "They just have to do it in one or two, to scare the rest of Congress, who then knows that they could be next if they vote the wrong way."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Peter Overby
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
Related Stories