Myths in politics take on a life of their own and the Obama campaign has been quick to cloak its incredible electoral success with a new coat of mythology. Two fantasies, in particular, pervade the amazing triumph of the Obama candidacy: That young people propelled him to victory by finally voting in large numbers and that small donors financed his campaign.
Were either myth a reality, it would be big news. Ever since the voting age was dropped to 18, politicians have been waiting for young voters to rock the system. But turnout among the young has been consistently and disappointingly low. From the manifest enthusiasm for Obama on campuses and the mammoth crowds of young admirers he generated, it appeared that the moment for the young had finally come. In the primaries and caucuses, young people flocked to Obama’s bandwagon, often supplying his top heavy margins of victory in caucus states that propelled him to victory over Hillary.
But on Election Day, it did not happen. The Fox News/Opinion Data exit polling showed that the vote cast by people under thirty held steady at 11% of the total, the same level the organization’s 2004 exit polls had found. Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International found a higher proportion of the vote cast by 18-29 year olds – 18% – but, by the same methodology, the firm found the 2004 voter base was 17% composed of people in that age cohort. Whether the young cast 11% or 18% of the vote in 2008 makes little difference. The fact is that neither polling firm found any real increase from the levels they found four years ago.
The myth of the small donor is even more important. Most political observers did not attack Obama for his breaking of his pledge to accept public financing because of our belief that he was funding his campaign by a massive outpouring of small donations. We felt that he was single-handedly accomplishing campaign finance reform and did not mind that he opted out of the public system. Indeed, we cheered as he amassed a $600 million war chest as it signified the clout of the small donor and showed the vulnerability of the old fat cat/PAC network that others used to raise money.
But we were fooled by Obama’s propaganda. In a story by Fred Lucas, CNSNews reports that the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) found that only 26% of the donors to Obama’s campaign gave $200 or less, compared to 25% for President Bush’s campaign in 2004. How did Obama fund his campaign? The old fashioned way, from fat cats. CFI found that he got 80% more money from large donors (over $1,000) than from those who gave less than $200.
Obama did benefit from small donors slightly more than other campaigns, but not enough to make the historic statement it appeared at the time that was taking place. CFI notes that 47% of Obama’s total fund raising came from large donors, compared to 60% for McCain, 60% for Bush in 2004, and 56% for John Kerry. This trend represents a movement in the right direction, but hardly the revolution that has been mythologized.
These revealing stats are more than a footnote to history. They represent the denouement of a carefully cultivated myth. Obama sold America on the idea that his campaign was animated by hordes of small donors who we’re attracted online. It now appears that this line was nothing more than a convenient smoke screen to mask his dependence on the traditional forces that have always funded presidential campaigns. And it puts into a new perspective the massive amount Obama raised and his brazen reversal of his public pledge to accept the limits imposed by public financing of campaigns.
Now that we know that Obama funded his campaign the old way – from rich people and special interests – it is reprehensible that he did so to the tune of over $600 million. When it looked like he was using the money of small donors to buy the election, it was excusable. But now that it becomes clear that he was getting money the same way other politicians always have done so, his vast outspending of McCain, all based on his chicanery in not taking public financing, puts his victory into a sharply more negative light.
And the fact that he and his staff cultivated the myth of the small donor, even as they realized what a distortion it was and used the myth to cover their attempt to buy the White House with special interest funding, lends a decidedly cynical aspect to their triumph.
We were fooled.