The latest Obama fundraising gimmick arrived in an e-mail from deputy campaign manager Julianna Smoot: "I've worked for President Obama for almost five years -- but I've never actually sat down for dinner with him. That's why I'm excited about (and maybe a little jealous of) the opportunity you have to join the President for dinner. He's going to sit down and swap stories over a meal with four supporters, and you could be one of them."
In Bloomberg Businessweek, reporter Diane Brady insists that this is actually an attempt to get small-donor names, but it could backfire and look like a raffle for the riff-raff:
Now, thanks to Smoot's fundraising team, regular folks will have a chance, albeit a slim one, to break bread with a President. "I've set aside time for four supporters like you to join me for dinner," Obama "wrote" in an e-mail to supporters last week. It was a pitch for money, but with a twist. For the low, low price of $5, donors get a chance at one of the slots. Audaciously, the appeal also makes believe that Obama is all about the little guy. "Most campaigns fill their dinner guest lists primarily with Washington lobbyists and special interests. We didn't get here doing that, and we're not going to start now," the e-mail says. "I'm asking you to say you believe in the kind of politics that gives people like you a seat at the table—whether it's the dinner table with me or the table where decisions are made about what kind of country we want to be."
The discount dinner offer may be as much about getting names as money. In 2008, Hillary Clinton's campaign snickered when Obama began asking for small sums to attend his rallies and speeches. At least they did at first. Along with the entry fees, Obama's aides collected e-mail addresses of virtually every attendee at those massive events. Obama compiled a vast supporter list, which he tapped for money throughout the campaign. Those small donations added up. According to the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, 30 percent, or $121.2 million, of Obama's 2008 total individual contributions of $409 million came from donors who gave $200 or less. Clinton, in contrast, received 22 percent, or $42.5 million, of her total cash from small donors. For Republican John McCain, the figure was $42.2 million, or 21 percent.
Even so, Obama's folksy appeal may wind up doing the opposite of what it intended by starkly illustrating where regular folks sit in the political food chain. If you've got tens of thousands of dollars to spare, you can very easily buy face time with the President of the United States. Anything less, you're looking at a raffle ticket.
Obama's large chunk of funds from small donors (with little troublesome disclosure) wasn't highly scrutinized by the media in the last cycle. It was only used to boost his "little people" appeal. The Obama website promo copy says the winners would get free airfare and hotel:
Make a donation today—and be automatically registered for a chance to have dinner with President Obama and three other supporters. We will cover your airfare and the meal—all you need to bring is your story and your ideas.
This is the copy of the actual e-mail "Barack" sent to his grass roots on June 15:
I've set aside time for four supporters like you to join me for dinner.
Most campaigns fill their dinner guest lists primarily with Washington lobbyists and special interests.
We didn't get here doing that, and we're not going to start now. We're running a different kind of campaign. We don't take money from Washington lobbyists or special-interest PACs -- we never have, and we never will.
We rely on everyday Americans giving whatever they can afford -- and I want to spend time with a few of you.
So if you make a donation today, you'll be automatically entered for a chance to be one of the four supporters to sit down with me for dinner. Please donate $5 or more today:
We'll pay for your flight and the dinner -- all you need to bring is your story and your ideas about how we can continue to make this a better country for all Americans.
This won't be a formal affair. It's the kind of casual meal among friends that I don't get to have as often as I'd like anymore, so I hope you'll consider joining me.
But I'm not asking you to donate today just so you'll be entered for a chance to meet me. I'm asking you to say you believe in the kind of politics that gives people like you a seat at the table -- whether it's the dinner table with me or the table where decisions are made about what kind of country we want to be.
It starts with a gift of whatever you can afford.
Please make a donation of $5 or more today, and we'll throw your name in the hat for the upcoming dinner:
I've said before that I want people like you to shape this campaign from the very beginning -- and this is a chance for four people to share their ideas directly with me.
Hope to see you soon,
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