Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's bid for president took on a new luster Wednesday, with the announcement that he raised "at least $25 million" in the first three months of this year. The total puts Obama, who's been in national politics for roughly two-and-a-half years, essentially even with Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who has raised $26 million.
The Clinton campaign announced its numbers on Sunday. In addition to her $26 million, Clinton transferred another $10 million from her Senate campaign account. Obama, who ran for Senate in 2004, doesn't have any such reserve.
But Obama may have raised more than Clinton in terms of dollars available for spending in the primaries. Both candidates — as well as Democrat John Edwards and Republicans Rudy Giuliani and John McCain — are simultaneously soliciting money for the primaries and the general election. A candidate can ask a donor for a maximum of $2,300 for the primaries — and another $2,300 for the general election. The only drawback is that general-election money cannot be used in the primaries.
Obama says his primary money account totals about $23.5 million. The Clinton campaign hasn't given a breakdown. But her fundraising for general-election money has been more aggressive than Obama's, and observers say it could reduce her primary money account by several million dollars.
Another Obama eye-opener: He claims to have 100,000 individual donors — twice as many as Clinton declared.
It all makes Obama "a real candidate," says Larry Bathgate, who has been raising money for Republican presidential candidates since the 1980s. One telltale sign, Bathgate says, is the difference in the average contributions for the two Democrats. Clinton's average is about $500; Obama's, about $250. Bathgate sees it as evidence that Obama has more donors that he can solicit again.
"Two-and-a-half years ago, most people didn't know who he was," Bathgate says of Obama. "All of a sudden, you've got a guy who's got 100,000 people writing a check for $250, on average — which says something."
The numbers run counter to expectations for the Clinton organization. Her campaign chair is former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe, a prodigious fundraiser since the 1980s. And of course, her husband, former president Bill Clinton, may be the best fundraiser in Democratic Party history. The Clintons have been prominent in national Democratic politics since the 1980s.
"The Clintons have to have a list of donors ... that probably numbers up into the hundreds of thousands," Bathgate says. "Juxtapose that with Sen. Obama. I mean, nobody knew of Sen. Obama until the Democratic convention in '04."
One last comparison — fundraising online. For perspective, in the first quarter of the last presidential race, Howard Dean dazzled people by raising $750,000 over the Internet. This time, Clinton's online total so far is $4.2 million — but Obama's is $6.9 million. He claims 50,000 online donors – equal to her entire donor pool.
Still, for now, online giving remains a small slice of the pie. Steve Weissman, at the non-profit Campaign Finance Institute, expects that most of the campaign dollars will still come in checks for $1,000 or more.
"At this moment," says Weissman, "the choices as to who the voters will hear from next January and February, and in the months before, are being made disproportionately by large donors."
One other cautionary note: A strong first quarter doesn't guarantee anything. Four years ago, John Edwards raised $7.4 million in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he managed to bring in only $4.5 million.
Edwards peaked early. But at this point, no one knows if Obama has peaked, or is still gaining.