From his South Texas home, Chuck Barracato watches the news to see how Barack Obama is doing. When Barracato is moved by Obama's message or senses that the Illinois senator could use some help, he digs into his savings and chips in $25 for the candidate's presidential campaign.
Barracato's payments, sent by computer click, add up to $700, maybe a little more. It's not a big sum by the standards of political donations, but it's enough to make Barracato part of a movement that some experts believe is reshaping presidential fundraising.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Political donors: An article in Thursday's Section A about the presidential campaign fundraising operations of Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton said independent voters in Texas must register as Democrats in order to vote in that party's March 4 primary. Voters in Texas do not register, but rather become "affiliated" with a party by voting in its primary. The affiliation lasts for that primary year.
"I am grass-roots," said Barracato, 68, a retired teacher who has gotten involved in the 2008 presidential campaign because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. "I am the itty-bitty guy behind the movement."
As he battles Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama -- a onetime Chicago community organizer -- is increasingly relying on donors like Barracato to fuel his campaign.
Lately, the Obama fundraising approach has paid especially big dividends. It is easily outpacing Clinton's money-gathering operation, which began the race with a massive financial advantage and has relied more heavily on traditional big donors.
Clinton, by contrast, recently lent her campaign $5 million to ease a financial squeeze. Although Clinton aides insist they have plenty of money to compete, the campaign faces crucial contests March 4 in Ohio and Texas that each figure to cost $5 million or more.
The role of small donors is heartening advocates of campaign finance reform. Small donors, by definition, are not insiders seeking special access or favors in exchange for their largesse.
Obama has attracted high-end contributors too, who give the maximum $2,300 allowed by federal law per candidate during the primary season. But he has been particularly adept at cultivating small givers.
His campaign has amassed a huge bank of e-mail addresses that it taps to reach donors like Barracato. Obama has squirreled them away since he came onto the national scene with his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention.
He also has gathered them at his rallies. And he has received e-mail addresses previously gathered by some of his major endorsers -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Move- On.org, a political advocacy group.
The missives he sends are newsy and personalized with the prospective donor's first name. They generally indicate a specific dollar amount or number of donors the campaign is trying to bring in, and explain how the money will be used.
"There is no question that Obama's fundraising is a huge breakthrough," MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser said, estimating that his organization's donors have given at least $500,000 to Obama. "Clearly, he has hit this nail on the head in a way that no one has before. He has given people a real sense of ownership that makes them want to chip in."
Obama raised $27.2 million in donations of $200 or less in 2007, compared with Clinton's $11.6 million, Federal Election Commission reports show.
Measured another way, half of Clinton's donations earmarked for the primary campaign came in increments of $2,300. By comparison, one-third of Obama's money arrived in $2,300 chunks, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.
The difference could prove crucial in the weeks ahead. Obama has a far larger pool of donors to turn to for more money. His campaign says he has 650,000 donors, many just a click away from sending more funds. Clinton fundraisers confide that so many of their contributors have reached the $2,300 maximum that it can be hard to find people to hit up again.
For small donors such as John Cheever, a teacher, Obama has a magnetic appeal. "Corny as it sounds, it is the hope," said Cheever, who regular sends in $25 or so. Cheever, who works at Punahou School, a private academy in Honolulu that Obama attended as a child, added: "I have been so distressed by the past seven years."
Obama's base of small donors provides benefits besides money. It has become his source of activists. Cheever has an Obama bumper sticker in the rear window of his 15-year-old Ford pickup. He plans to spend part of Saturday, his 38th birthday, making phone calls for Obama in advance of Hawaii's vote Tuesday.
Although Obama's fundraising was strong throughout 2007, it took off in January amid the candidate's wins in Iowa and South Carolina, and even after he lost to Clinton in New Hampshire. The campaign announced that Obama had raised roughly $32 million during the month, an amount that towers over the one-month sum for any of the other presidential candidates.
Clinton raised about $14 million in January, her campaign announced. The official amounts won't be known until next week, when candidates file reports with the election commission detailing their January receipts.