WASHINGTON – Now that campaign finance reform (search) is the law of the land, million-dollar soft-money donations (search) are out, small individual contributions are in, and the Democrats are left scurrying to make up for the huge checks they used to get from millionaires and labor unions.
That's right, Democrats have traditionally been the big winners of large-dollar donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (search).
“Frankly, we got a little bit lazy in the eight years of the Clinton administration,” said one Democratic strategist who did not want to be named. “[President Clinton] was such a fabulous communicator, and there was no one better at fundraising, period. We sat on our laurels in those years.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have been growing their vast small-donor base since the Reagan administration, and as of the 2002 election cycle 64 percent of all donations were for amounts less than $200. Democrats raised only 34 percent of the funds from small-dollar donors, according to the report.
In total, the Republican Party outraised the Democratic Party in 2002, bringing in a total of $652 million to the Democrats' $466 million, most of it with smaller cash donations.
Democrats have long counted on big money from labor unions, trial lawyer associations and the entertainment industry. They reaped 92 percent of all donations in amounts greater than $1 million in 2002, according to the report.
But with soft money banned under new campaign finance laws and regulated hard-money donations capped at $2,000, Republicans have the clear advantage, say political observers.
“The Democrats have always depended more on the Barbra Streisand donor and less the proprietor of the local barber shop donor,” said Mike Franc, political analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
Franc said millionaire donors, matched with the massive, unanimous support of the country’s largest labor unions, have fueled Democratic campaigns for years, not only with unregulated soft-money contributions but with human capital, armies of campaign volunteers providing myriad in-kind services.
“It had the effect of a trust-fund kid who didn’t have to work,” Franc said of the impact on Democrats. “Now they do.”
Democrats acknowledge that they previously had not worked as hard as the GOP in sending direct-mail solicitations and building small donor databases, but they have made gains in that area, investing the money and people necessary. They also balk at claims that Republicans are blowing them away in fund raising this year.
“We are seeing an exponential increase in our small-donor donations,” said Deborah DeShong, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “We saw that the soft money was going away and luckily we have been preparing.”
For the first time, Democrats have been building a national voter file, instituting an aggressive direct-mail program and have been fund raising on the Internet through a new Web site, www.Demzilla.com, which links to the DNC online, DeShong said. She pointed to the success of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who raised an average $66 per donation to reach the $7.5 million he reported last quarter.
Strategists say that the GOP has been successful with small donors because they have a message that resonates with the demographic that is more likely to send a check for $20, $50 or $100 to the party.
“The main type of Republican donor is a fiscal conservative, making between $40,000 and $75,000 a year. They think they are paying too much in taxes and that’s why they give,” said Jim McLaughlin, a New York-based Republican pollster.
“When they hear Democrats wanting to eliminate the tax cut, they want to give -- it’s the same reason they gave to Reagan and the same reason they give to [President] Bush.”
Franc agrees, citing the “middle- to upper-income small-business owner or manager” as more likely to give to the party that is seen as more business-friendly -- more often the Republican Party. They are also more likely to give the small checks than anyone else in the voter pool, he said.
Other issues -- like national defense, Supreme Court nominations, abortion and school choice -- also energize individual voters to give, and they give strongly to the GOP, analysts said.
But not everyone buys that somehow individual Republicans are more committed to the issues, and therefore more willing to contribute. Richard Semiatin, professor of government at American University, said Republicans have always been better at “the business of raising money.”
“I don’t think it's for any other reason than they are better at raising money,” he said. “They’ve been at it longer. Their presentation looks more polished. The Republican database is much larger. But money only goes so far.”
According to the most recent reports, the Republican National Committee is leading the DNC in 2003 fundraising, $54.8 million to $18 million. Experts say the GOP’s small-money advantage is showing in the post-soft-money political climate.
“[Republicans] have been at it a lot longer than we have,” said Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the New Democrat Network, a political action committee for moderate Democrats. “But I think you are seeing a turnaround on that. You’re seeing a huge potential for Democrats growing their own small-donor base.”