The 2008 election marked the perfection of small-dollar politics, as Barack Obama fueled roughly half of his campaign with the email-driven, impulse-based solicitation that had been pioneered by Howard Dean four years earlier and technically perfected by smaller campaigns and advocacy groups.
This year, technical proficiency — technical improvements, aggressive testing, a huge list, and a willingness to burn through the list by November — may allow Obama to match that small dollar figure, even if fear has to replace hope as the dominant emotion. (Obama depended heavily on big money as well, of course; and Romney has raised some small contributions.
But this is the year of the big money. It's coming in the side doors, with SuperPACs bigger and better 527s and wealthy conservatives eager to spend against a Democratic incumbent. And it's coming to Mitt Romney through the front door: His campaign says he raised an eye-popping $101.3 million in July, the second nine-figure take in two months.
That money chase shapes campaigns more than their managers like to say, and more than media coverage often reflects. Obama structured large elements of his campaign in 2008, both technically and in terms of his message, around opportunities to raise money. On the technical side, that meant promising word of the Vice Presidential announcement to people who submitted their phone numbers. Organizationally, it encouraged mass rallies, which the campaign used to harvest email addresses. And on the message, it encouraged the candidate toward his most sweeping and stirring appeals and promises of dramatic change — words his allies now see as well-intentioned overpromising, and his critics see as demagoguery.
Romney's summer has been equally shaped by the imperatives of big money. His schedule has been largely dictated by fundraising trips, often to states that will play no role in November. His international trip wasn't a messaging exercise like Obama's 2008 swing, on an effort to stir the Republican Party's intensely pro-Israel Christian base, like other GOP ventures to the Holy Land. It was structured as a fundraising venture aimed at American Jewish donors, with (bobbled) messaging thrown in.
And Romney's broader message seems also at times to be shaped by an impulse to connect with the donors who have made up much of his audience. Many rich men in America feel, in the Obama years, like victims — of, if nothing else, occasionally harsh presidential rhetoric. Romney has encouraged and, at times, identified with that sentiment. If most Americans don't see the martyrdom in being forced to release your tax returns, your average five-figure political donor has a more acute sense of the unpleasantness of the thing. But victimhood is a dangerous posture in a national campaign; it can look like weakness.
A focus on the big donors may help explain Romney has chosen to avoid the Nixon-to-China policy appeals that might allow him to challenge Obama as the tribune of popular anger at what some conservatives see as a trifecta of big business, big government, and big labor. Romney could, as Jim Pethokoukis argued recently, cast himself as a man who knows finance well enough to take it on where Obama has failed to. Instead, Romney has no particularly compelling line at all on the financial crisis.
Romney does, though, have money; he and his aides know that time spent with Dick Cheney in Wyoming is not winning them votes, but they calculate (as does Obama, also spending a great deal of time in places like New York City) that the television ads money can buy in the fall are worth it. The tradeoffs, ultimately, are between money and time, money and message; and while the gimmicks and grandiosity that come with small-dollar fundraising shouldn't be ignored, Romney's politically difficult summer does say something about the cost of the big money.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.