Democrats' online fundraising attracts record number of donors


More than one-third of the $458 million raised has come from supporters who donated $200 or less, write Dan Morainand Doug Smithin Los Angeles

BARACK OBAMA'S money machine is fuelled by the likes of Martha Murphy, a grandmother who has donated 104 times for a total of $2,475.34.

Murphy has used her credit card to donate in amounts as small as $10. "It is amazing how it adds up," she says.

Obama has revolutionised campaign fundraising, deploying the internet to tap into more donors than any candidate in history. The campaign has reported $160 million (€120 million) in contributions from supporters who donated $200 or less, more than a third of the $458 million raised. But as Obama sets records, his fundraising has come under increased scrutiny.

The Democratic candidate's donors also include "Derty Poiiuy", an individual with a scatological sense of humour who has given $950. "Mong Kong" has contributed $1,065 and lists an address in a nonexistent city.

The Republican National Committee filed a federal complaint this week, alleging that some of Obama's small donations are illegal because they come from foreign nationals or exceed the limit.

Obama's contributions have also exposed a loophole in the law, which does not require disclosure of the identities of donors who give $200 or less, making it impossible to determine whether they are legitimate without a federal audit.

Lawrence Norton, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel, noted that the law was written when "no one conceived that a candidate could raise millions" in such small amounts.

Exactly why a donor would use a name like Derty Poiiuy is not clear.

"It's part of phenomenon that we've never seen before," said commission spokesman Bob Biersack said. People who make up names when donating to federal candidates violate laws against making false statements, but Biersack could not recall anyone being prosecuted for such a crime.

Biersack said the commission cannot conduct an audit unless there are significant questions about a candidate's fundraising. "Odd names by themselves aren't enough. A lot of people have odd names," Biersack said. Obama has returned money to Poiiuy and many others.

"Every campaign faces the challenge of screening and reviewing its contributions," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement. "We have been aggressive about taking every available step to make sure our contributions are appropriate." LaBolt noted that John McCain had taken bogus donations too, including some from people who list their addresses, cities and state - required information - as "anonymous."

Obama's campaign has set up screens to try to ensure donors are US citizens. People living abroad must provide a US passport number to the campaign. But the Republican National Committee, in its complaint to the commission, charged that the campaign has "knowingly accepted excessive contributions and donations from foreign nationals" and called it "a widescale problem".

Obama has received about $3.2 million in donations of more than $200 from overseas. Nearly $600,000 of that sum came from US military addresses or US territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam.

Throughout the campaign, Obama has touted his small donors as a sign of his wide appeal. Obama's donors number more than 2.5 million, far more than any previous candidate. He estimates the average donation is $84, far below the maximum $2,300 that an individual can give for the primary and for the general election. But more than 20,000 donors gave at least 10 times, adding up to more than $200. More than 8,600 have donated $1,000 or more by giving repeatedly during the course of the campaign.

Most serial donors are like Murphy, the Syracuse, New York, grandmother, who proudly give their name. She has been an Obama fan since she watched his widely acclaimed 2004 convention speech. "Something clicked, not in my head but in my gut," she said.

Now, when she has spare money, she clicks her mouse and sends some to Obama. Sometimes $10; sometimes $30. She gives when he says something she particularly likes, or when McCain irritates her.

Some donors speak of getting caught up in the psychology of the campaign's online fundraising operation which encourages donors to match one another. Kristen Roberts, a bartender from Harpswell, Maine, is among the donors who match donations. She has given at least 119 times, adding up to $1,747.

"People send out e-mails to their friends and relatives and try to get them to donate to their fundraising page," Roberts says.

Donna Skinner of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, communicates over Obama's website via "O-mail."

"We have what we call money bombs. We make donations to each other's fundraisers," Skinner said.

She has given on at least 258 occasions and recently the campaign told her she had hit the limit.

Another donor who exceeded the maximum is "Good Will", who contributed $8,500 and provided an address at a Goodwill shop in Austin, Texas.

The campaign has returned his money.

- (LA Times-Washington Post service)