by Rod D. Martin
February 16, 2012

In January 2008 alone, a man who’d held federal office for barely three years and who was considered by virtually everyone to be the underdog for his party’s nomination raised $36 million.  46% of that record haul came from small, individual donors through the internet.  It was three times the take of his party’s frontrunner – Hillary Rodham Clinton, who actually had to loan her own campaign $5 million that month – and millions more than the combined total of all the Republican candidates put together.

This Barack Obama built his campaign on a sea of small donors and their small checks.  It must be put that way:  those donors powered the most incredible volunteer effort in electoral history – whole states were fully staffed by volunteers for months before the official campaign could spare a single paid staffer.  Roughly 800,000 individuals both volunteered and gave money to “the One” in 2007 alone, staying even with Clinton in cash and capabilities even when – for months – she was twenty points ahead.

They made him the nominee.  They saw him through to the end, an end in which he outraised – by a quarter billion dollars – both Clinton and the Republican nominee combined.  And, the incubator for all of this, bundled another $88 million in small donor checks – or 11% of his total take – on top of their efforts through his official campaign.

So what have we learned from all this?  Apparently nothing.

Four years later – with plenty of time to learn whatever might be learned from 2008 and also energized with Tea Party zeal – the current Republican field is actually doing worse than their predecessors.

Compare January to January.  In 2008, the Big Three (ignoring Ron Paul) were McCain, Romney and Huckabee, and they took in $12.4 million, $13.5 million, and $4 million respectively (with the caveat that half of Romney’s take was a loan to himself).  Of this, small donor contributions were 24%, 31% and 50%:  healthy looking, until you realize this was only $6.6 million spread out amongst all of them.

In 2012, the Big Three (again, ignoring Ron Paul) were Romney, Gingrich and Santorum.  They took in $6.5 million, $5.6 million and $4.5 million respectively.  This totaled up to just over half Obama’s $29.1 million for the same period.  Their small donor percentages:  Romney 9%, Gingrich 46% and Santorum 48%.  But though the percentages look good for Newt and Rick, the numbers are anemic, and as everyone knows, all three depended heavily on their mega-donor Super PACs.  (Oh, and for reference:  Obama’s small donor percentage in January was 98%).

In case you’re missing the point, it’s this:  tiny dollars equal incompetent or non-existent online efforts.  However many people may meet these candidates at rallies, the candidates are not engaging — much less activating or monetizing them online.  Obama watches, and laughs.

Or just look at 2011.

As in January, Romney raised only 9% of his $57 million from small donors; and despite so obviously being the establishment candidate, the Massachusetts governor’s total was much less than half Obama’s for the same period (nearly half of which came from small donors), mirroring 2007.

The rest of the field was…worse.

Gingrich – unlike Obama a household name when he announced, as well as the founder of one of the Right’s larger internet-based groups (American Solutions, which collapsed in bankruptcy almost immediately after Gingrich’s departure) – successfully reached small donors for half his contributions, but could only raise less than $13 million total in all of 2007.

Santorum – also unlike Obama a well-known national figure when he announced – did wretchedly on both counts, with less than a third of his anemic $2 million raise coming from small donors.

Lost on these needlessly-struggling men is that MoveOn and Obama have reinvented the game.  MoveOn used dot-com expertise and a huge one-time investment of soft money in 2003-2004 to launch an internet behemoth.  It went in one cycle from comparatively little small dollar fundraising to $32 million, or double the National Rifle Association’s PAC.

More to the point is how it achieved that:  it didn’t start by begging, as the entire direct mail-based right habitually does.  It started by giving these folks something meaningful to do, a way to make a difference.  It built a relationship with them, helped them feel ownership in the organization, trained them to be effective.  And when afterward it came asking for money, it unleashed an ocean.

Obama embraced their approach whole.  He didn’t hire the usual D.C. suspects:  he lured a Facebook co-founder to run his online campaign.  And the campaign they built re-wrote the rules of politics.  MoveOn’s million on-the-ground activists – by now donors – had skin in the game multiple ways, and they turned out in caucus after caucus, annihilating Clinton 70-30 in state after state.  Her historically strong but contextually anemic primary margins in the 55-45 range couldn’t keep up:  the election was over before it began.

Republicans meanwhile party like it’s 1999.  There is no conservative MoveOn.  There is no interest among Republican leadership or donors in creating one.  There are bloggers, of course, and tea partiers, and God knows they’re potent.  But they’re a shell of what they could be.

As a result, there’s no conservative “netroots” to rally behind right candidates, no trained cadre of activists that already knows what needs to be done.  There are “money bombs” and other gimmicks, but no real organizations.  Of the current candidate crop Gingrich had the best chance of creating one, but instead built a thinly disguised Newt For President Committee.  This never works.  (Or I should say, almost never, because it has worked for Ron Paul; but Ron Paul does not understand how to use what has coalesced around him.)

So Huckabee, Santorum, Thompson, Gingrich, and all the rest languish unfunded and with skeleton crews, in a world where millions of activists and hundreds of millions of dollars can be organized with relative ease.  Their only hope is that some rich man will come along and buy them the White House.  Their Conestoga wagons loaded, they trek intrepidly across the plain, as Obama travels first class on Union Pacific, laughing at the Friess-Adelson spectacle.

Organization can only get you so far.  I believe the Republican nominee will defeat Barack Obama later this year.  That victory will turn on the latter’s utter failure as President and the former’s superior ideas and vision for the future.  He’ll be less organized.  But he’ll win anyway.

Even so, it’s a rare year where that is true.  Most of the time, the team that brings its “A-game” wins.  And Republicans are losing far more races than they have to, for no good reason whatsoever.  Eventually, unless big things change soon, the tech gap will kill them as surely as the tank gap killed Poland in 1939, its gallant cavalrymen slaughtered by a sea of German Panzers.

That day may come sooner than we think.