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Bachmann's fundraising shows grassroots support may not be enough

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Michele Bachmann
Republican presidential hopeful, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in a June 2011 file photo. Bachmann raised $3.9 million this quarter, a modest haul compared to other candidates.
Hannah Foslien/AP

With Republican presidential nominating contests fast approaching, the 2012 presidential money race is in full swing.

An important barometer for how each of the White House hopefuls are doing are their third quarter fundraising reports, which were released on Saturday.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann raised $3.9 million this quarter. 

It's a modest haul compared to other candidates, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who raised $17.2 million, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who collected $14.2 million, and Ron Paul who amassed nearly $8.3 million, but quite a bit more than the $1.6 million Bachmann raised in the second quarter.

Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College and expert in campaign finance, said he expected Bachmann to do better.

"Overall, raising $4 million is a substantial amount of money, but it was nowhere near what was expected that she would raise given her past fundraising abilities and given the fact that during this quarter she was riding high in the polls... after winning the Ames Straw Poll," he said.

Bachmann spent about $5.9 million over the last three months. She's got $1.3 million in the bank, but she also reports nearly $550,000 in campaign debt.

But her top-line numbers only say so much about how the Minnesota Republican is doing in the GOP primary. A deeper look at Bachmann's fundraising patterns shows that she's still doing quite well among grassroots voters compared to other candidates, but that she has been slow to expand her army of loyal donors to other states. 

SMALL DONOR APPEAL

Nearly $2.8 million — or about 70 percent of all the money Bachmann raised this quarter — came from donors who gave less than $200. 

Candidates aren't required to disclose information about donors who give small amounts, so there's a lot we don't know about most of the people who support Bachmann financially.

Still, the large number of small donations underscores an important point about Bachmann's campaign strategy. 

Bachmann has long relied on a strategy of making lots of money from many small-dollar donations. During her 2010 re-election bid, she raised a total of $13 million, much of it coming from a vast network of people willing to give small amounts. 

For her presidential campaign, Bachman reports that 70,000 people have given to her campaign, with each contribution averaging $42.

Her appeal among these "small donors" can be interpreted two ways: On one hand, it shows that she has been slow to woo extremely wealth contributors and that her big challenge going forward will be expanding her base of donors.  

On the other hand, it highlights Bachmann's strong appeal among average voters, said political scientist Dennis Goldford, who teaches at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. 

"It suggests that the people supporting her financially tend to be more of an average citizen, populist kind of crowd," Goldford said. "That is indeed her appeal. She is one of the people fighting to become the anti-Romney." 

All those small donors are "good news," said GOP strategist Rich Galen. Bachmann can solicit these contributors over and over because they have not reached the $5,000 limit a person can give between the primary and general elections. Even among Bachmann's donors who are giving big bucks, only a sliver have hit the limit.

In that regard, Bachmann has an advantage over Romney and Perry who collected most of their money this quarter from people willing to shell out thousands at a time; both candidates pulled in 10 percent or less of their cash from small donors, according to OpenSecrets.org, which collects campaign finance data. 

BACHMANN SUPPORTERS TEND TO BE OLDER

The rest of Bachmann's third quarter cash — about $1.1 million — came from people who have given more than $200 since her campaign started. Bachmann is required to provide information to the Federal Election Commission about the amount of each contribution as well as the employment and location of the donors.

Of the roughly 4,900 donations Bachmann reported, more than a third came from supporters who say they're retired; no other profession is listed more frequently in her most recent disclosure form. Together, these donors gave Bachmann more than $356,000 last quarter.

That's not much of a surprise because very conservative voters, who Bachmann appeals to, tend also to be older, said Galen.

Nearly 15 percent of Bachmann's third quarter donations came from California, followed by Minnesota with 9 percent and Texas with 8 percent. That pattern has not changed much since Bachmann last filed a campaign finance report in July. 

"Generally, it's the case that candidates raising money early in a presidential campaign are getting their money from California, Texas, Florida, New York and then one's home state," said Corrado. 

The bad news is that it does not appear Bachmann is expanding the geography of her donors, Corrado added. Donors in other key Republican primary states, including South Carolina and New Hampshire, have become less generous relative to other states since last quarter. 

Still, it appears that a fundraising trip to North Carolina Bachmann took in September paid off; the state ranks 6th among Bachmann's top givers, shelling out more than $43,000 in the third quarter of 2011. That's a significant increase over the second quarter, when donors there gave only $12,000. 

CASH ON HAND

It's a good thing that Bachmann has money in the bank, which is more than can be said for other candidates who have run up more debt than they can afford, said Galen. But he's skeptical it is enough for her to continue competing seriously. 

Bachmann has to get through a very tight primary season this winter, with nomination events happening in quick succession, which will mean travel, advertising and organization in states like South Carolina and Florida, Galen pointed out. 

But before that, she'll need to win Iowa, which will require paying for costly radio and television spots. 

More importantly, she'll need to expand and focus her already good organization there, Goldford said. 

"Money is less important than intensity and enthusiasm on the part of your supporters," in Iowa, he said. "The key is the organizational aspect to get people to a local precinct caucus site on a cold night in January whatever the weather might happen to be."