Obama's Money Magic? Get Them To Give Again Bev Hutney of Iowa is one of thousands of donors who started out giving the Obama campaign $200 or less — and who got hooked on politics. These donors helped Obama raise $745 million and showed the prowess of his online fundraising.
NPR logo Obama's Money Magic? Get Them To Give Again

Obama's Money Magic? Get Them To Give Again

One campaign donor, Bev Hutney of Iowa, says Caroline Kennedy's endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama on Jan. 28, 2008, in Washington D.C., spurred her to give his campaign more money. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One campaign donor, Bev Hutney of Iowa, says Caroline Kennedy's endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama on Jan. 28, 2008, in Washington D.C., spurred her to give his campaign more money.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Then-Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a major address on race and politics at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in March. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images hide caption

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William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Then-Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a major address on race and politics at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in March.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Bev Hutney says she should have known better. She's a marketing pro, after all, fluent in the language and cutting-edge methods of persuading folks to part with their money.

But the Obama strategy got to her. The personalized "Bev" e-mails. The insidery updates from campaign manager David Plouffe. The notes signed by "Michelle."

And so, like thousands of other supporters who started out making a small campaign donation and then got hooked, Hutney, of suburban Des Moines, Iowa, became a repeat giver. She made five online contributions this year totaling more than $250, and she's not done yet. (The $50 "limited edition" official Obama fleece jacket she ordered this week is expected to arrive by Christmas Eve.)

"They sucked me in. I was getting these daily e-mails and feeling that I was part of the inner circle," says Hutney, 44, creative director for a nonprofit direct marketing firm. "And if anyone is savvy to the tricks of the trade, it's me."

Repeat givers like Hutney typically started out thinking small. And without the Obama campaign's sophisticated online wooing, they most likely would have remained in the category of "small donor," historically defined as giving a total of $200 or less.

But now the repeaters may represent the real news of the record-busting $745 million raised by Obama, says Michael Malbin, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. Especially since a recent analysis by the institute showed that small donors accounted for exactly the same percentage of all contributors to Obama's campaign as they did to President Bush's in 2004.

The survey showed that 83 percent of both Obama and Bush donations came from small donors, and those donors contributed about 25 percent of both candidates' overall haul.

Obama's repeat donors, however, comprised an "unusually large" group compared with past elections, Malbin says. Final 2008 numbers are still being analyzed, but by the end of August, 212,000 repeat donors had given an average of $490; during the same period, 2.5 million small donors had given an average of $65 each. Not only did their overall contributions in the primary season match those from small donors, but the serial givers also became "engaged and involved," he says, "and many ended up volunteering for the campaign."

Final general election data are expected to show much the same. The repeaters kept coming back, and not only because of Obama's sophisticated e-mail and online strategy, which merged the campaign's grass-roots and fundraising efforts. They came back because the primary season went on for so long, Malbin says, and also because Obama became the first major-party candidate to opt out of public financing since spending rules were adopted three decades ago. The move allowed him to raise unlimited funds for the general election contest against GOP nominee John McCain.

Hutney, who had never before given money to an individual candidate, can tick off events that prompted her to give more after her initial post-Iowa caucus donation. There was Caroline Kennedy's endorsement, Obama's speech on race in America, and the contentious South Carolina primary, when she says she started feeling "panicky" about the outcome.

"From time to time, something would touch me or something would happen, and I was motivated by that," she says. Giving in small increments was easier to justify. It was grocery money, a bottle of wine — "not painful at all," Hutney says.

The question now is whether Obama can keep repeat donors engaged and use them to promote his legislative agenda. Malbin predicts they will become more politically active, and not just through contributing to Democratic efforts. As for Hutney, she's all in. "To have a president want to speak with me, to let me know what's going on and to be part of the process — that, to me, is fascinating," she says.