Small Donors Are Slow to Return to the Obama FoldPresident Obama’s most loyal supporters and a potent symbol of his political brand: voters of moderate means who dug deep for the candidate and his message of hope and change, sending him $10 or $25 or $50 every few weeks or months.
But in recent months, the frustration and disillusionment that have dragged down Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have crept into the ranks of his vaunted small-donor army, underscoring the challenges he faces as he seeks to rekindle grass-roots enthusiasm for his re-election bid.
In interviews with dozens of low-dollar contributors in the past two weeks, some said they were unhappy with what they viewed as Mr. Obama’s overly conciliatory approach to Congressional Republicans. Others cited what they saw as a lack of passion in the president, or said the sour economy had drained both their enthusiasm and their pocketbooks.
For still others, high hopes that Mr. Obama would deliver a new kind of politics in his first term have been dashed by the emergence of something that, to them, more resembles politics as usual.
“When I was pro-Obama in 2008, I was thinking of him as a leader who could face the challenges that we were tackling,” said Adnan Alasadi, who works in behavioral health in Mesa, Ariz. Mr. Alasadi contributed repeatedly to Mr. Obama during his first campaign but says he will not give the president — or anyone else — any more money.
“Now I am seeing him as just an opportunistic politician,” Mr. Alasadi said.
Such defections are not merely symbolic. About a quarter of Mr. Obama’s record haul during the 2008 cycle came from donors giving $200 or less, supporters who could be tapped again and again without hitting federal contribution limits. Many of those same people were also volunteers in his campaign, knocking on doors, calling friends and neighbors and helping turn out the voters that fall.
Nadine Kurland, 62, of Falling Waters, W.Va., made over a dozen contributions to Mr. Obama during the 2008 election and also made phone calls on his behalf. But when an e-mail arrived recently inviting her to an Obama-themed get-together, she ignored it.
“I have been very disappointed in the president,” Ms. Kurland said. “He has not stood up to the Republicans.”
Unhappiness with Mr. Obama can be found even among the supporters his team recruited to appear in campaign materials.
When Mr. Obama formally announced his re-election bid in April, his campaign released a video featuring supporters from swing states like Colorado and Michigan. One of them was Edward Blair, a 65-year-old lawyer from North Carolina, who sent a half-dozen checks to Mr. Obama during the last campaign and knocked on doors in his hometown, Lenoir, but has not given him money this year.
“What I said in that video was I didn’t agree with Obama on everything, but I respected him and trusted him,” Mr. Blair said in a recent interview. But Mr. Obama’s decision this month to abandon stricter new smog regulations, Mr. Blair said, had renewed his worries about the president’s ability to lead.
“I certainly respect him, and I trust him,” Mr. Blair said. “But I am disappointed, and I’m bewildered.”
Compared with his Republican rivals, Mr. Obama remains in an enviable position. No Republican candidate for president has built a grass-roots fund-raising machine as formidable or sophisticated as his.
Through June 30, the close of the most recent campaign reporting period, more than 552,000 people had contributed to Mr. Obama’s re-election effort, according to campaign officials. Half of them were new donors, and nearly all of them gave contributions of less than $250.
But those figures obscured another statistic: a vast majority of Mr. Obama’s past donors, who number close to four million, have not yet given him any money at all.
The campaign is still in its early stages, and the president is likely to show far stronger numbers than any Republican when the candidates report their third-quarter fund-raising early next month. But his recent political difficulties — a protracted battle over raising the national debt limit, sagging approval ratings — have raised questions about whether he will be able to sustain his fund-raising momentum.
“He did not articulate either to the Republicans that he was negotiating with or to the American people a strong stance for what we feel the Democrats believe in,” Theodore Weiss, 77, a retired federal employee in Florida, said of the debt negotiations.
While he was impressed with Mr. Obama’s recent jobs speech, Mr. Weiss said, he will not send Mr. Obama any checks this year. Instead, he said, he will use that money to help out his two sons, a teacher and a small-business owner, both of whom are struggling in the economic downturn.
Aides to Mr. Obama said the campaign was well ahead of its 2008 benchmarks. That year, Mr. Obama did not reach one million total donors until February, about a month after he won the Iowa caucuses.
A campaign spokesman said that the number of people who had given more than once to Mr. Obama this year and the number of people who had contributed for the first time were both higher than his total number of donors at the same point in 2007.
Many of the donors interviewed said they were pleased with the president’s performance, or blamed Republicans in Congress for his difficulties.
“I am happy with him,” said Christine Carvajal, 45, a teacher in Pittsburgh who made several small contributions in 2008. “I just feel like the Congress is completely obstructing him.”
Some said they would like to give Mr. Obama money but had not done so simply because they could no longer afford to make political contributions.
“Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to contribute anything,” said Judyann Allen, a retiree in Covington, Wash., who added that she and her husband were living month to month. “I would if I could. But I can’t afford to give anything to anyone.”
This month, the Obama campaign is staging a “Grass-roots Fund-Raising Challenge,” a contest for Obama supporters who have set up fund-raising Web sites for him, with the goal of raising 20,000 contributions by the end of September.
Mr. Obama has also provided “grass-roots fund-raising tips” on his Twitter feed. “Make a hard ask,” one entry read. “Be clear about what you want and when you need it.”
And Mr. Obama’s campaign is deploying volunteers to contact all his past supporters one by one, in part to ensure that they have a chance to voice any concerns or criticisms they may have. The campaign also plans to roll out an initiative that will provide donors with real-life examples of how the campaign is spending their dollars to build a field operation in critical states.
But some of Mr. Obama’s supporters, echoing concerns expressed by many Democrats in polls, said they were less interested in what he would do with their contributions than in seeing him play tougher.
“There has been less passion than I might have hoped for,” said Andra Bohnet, a musician and professor in Mobile, Ala., who sent Mr. Obama five checks in 2008. “I think that in some ways, they have been too conciliatory.”
Asked whether she would give to him again, Ms. Bohnet paused.
“Now, I think I’ll wait and see,” she said.