Expert Commentary

Riding the waves of money: Contribution dynamics in the 2008 presidential nomination campaign

2011 study in the Journal of Political Marketing looks at patterns of fundraising during the presidential primaries in 2008.

How rising candidate popularity and victories in primary contests affect the amount of money that flows into campaigns in their early phases is of acute interest to both campaign operatives and scholars. This “money primary” — the early part of which scholars call the “invisible primary” — can have a decisive impact before most citizens cast their votes. Perceived ideas about money and momentum can influence coverage and poll ratings of candidates, and determine the viability of campaigns.

A 2011 study from Boston University and Michigan State University published in the Journal of Political Marketing, “Riding the Waves of Money: Contribution Dynamics in the 2008 Presidential Nomination Campaign” (an earlier PDF version is also available), examines the daily and longer-term patterns of individual contributions recorded by the Federal Elections Commission, and draws lessons from the 2008 race. The analysis focuses on the idea of “contribution momentum” — the consistency of donations over time.

The study’s findings include:

  • “Those who donate first and throughout the invisible primary tend to come from the candidate’s network and donate more heavily. Those who donate during the primary are less often within the candidate’s early network or party insiders. These later contributors respond largely to dynamics in the campaign.”
  • An analysis of Hilary Clinton’s fundraising prior to July 2007 shows contributions clustered around reporting dates, whereas Barack Obama’s fundraising was more consistent on a daily basis. This lack of “contribution momentum” for Clinton may have been an early sign of trouble in the race. Interestingly, Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire — in defiance of both polls and pundits — did not yield a decisive surge in fundraising.
  • In the Republican race, the study’s authors state, “As we found with Clinton during this period, [Rudy] Giuliani’s dynamic contribution estimates contrast with the story that was told by the quarterly and monthly FEC reports. Giuliani’s campaign showed only sporadic levels of contribution momentum. His daily receipts were somewhat low on average, but he still had record-breaking amounts of receipts for the days immediately prior to the report deadlines.”
  • Despite apparent “similarities between Huckabee and Obama, Mike Huckabee’s Iowa victory provided a much smaller boost in contribution levels.”
  • While the popular narrative was that Obama’s victory in Iowa and John McCain’s victory in New Hampshire brought them the successes they needed to propel them to victory, an analysis of the money race shows that “it was each candidate’s second victory, both clear victories in South Carolina, which cemented each candidate’s contribution advantage.”

Comparing Obama’s and Huckabee’s diverging paths, the authors note that “Huckabee’s campaign exemplifies the harsh financial and organizational requirements that the nominating system placed upon long shots. His Iowa win gave him exposure and greatly boosted his finances, putting him on par for the month with contribution levels of candidates like Giuliani, [Ron] Paul, and [Fred] Thompson. However, this amount was not near enough to compensate for his meager beginnings, such that he could fund the national-level campaign needed in February.”

Tags: presidency, campaign fundraising, Iowa/New Hampshire

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