Now that public reports put President-elect Barack Obama's final campaign haul at a staggering $750 million, the question arises: What's next?
Some argue that Obama's record-breaking campaign -- which was the first to wholly reject public funding and which relied on close to 4 million individual donors -- calls for a whole new approach to regulating political money.
While Obama endorses fixing the broken public financing system, his success raising private money might make that a tough sell. The explosion in small and mid-level donors that defined Obama's campaign, moreover, has convinced some analysts that it's time to focus more on matching low-dollar contributions than on capping large ones. Some dub this a "floors, not ceilings" approach.
The watershed aspects of Obama's campaign may go beyond fundraising into policymaking.
If nothing else, the invisibility of small donors to current election law raised questions toward the end of the campaign when some observers noticed how those amounts could add up.
"Campaigns are run differently, money is raised differently, the campaigns are in a different place," said Obama campaign lawyer Robert Bauer at a Dec. 4 election law conference at the University of California's Washington Center. The political arena has changed, argued Bauer, a Democratic lawyer with Perkins Coie, and "the public funding system has to change with it."
Others counter that this election did not redefine campaign fundraising all that dramatically. The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute caused a stir recently with an analysis concluding that small donors, defined as those who gave $200 or less, did not actually dominate Obama's campaign. Obama raised some 26 percent of his money from small donors, according to CFI, barely more than the 25 percent that President Bush pulled in from low-dollar contributors in 2004.
And big donors continued to fuel the 2008 election on all fronts, campaign finance experts note. Obama relied heavily on maximum individual donors of $2,300, and more than 600 so-called "bundlers" helped ramp up his totals. Obama's top 47 bundlers raised $500,000 each on his behalf, according to CFI.
At the same time, both Obama and GOP nominee John McCain worked in tandem with the national political parties to tap big donors to give mega-donations to so-called joint fundraising committees, which help both federal and state candidates. With the help of Obama and McCain, these joint committees hit up donors for $28,500 a pop -- the maximum an individual may give to a party.
Together, the Democratic and Republican joint fundraising committees netted $360 million, said Colby College professor Anthony Corrado at the election law conference -- $183 million of it raised by Obama and the Democrats, and $177 million collected by McCain and the Republicans.
Still, Obama's small donations added up. A key donor category for Obama, CFI noted, was made up of individuals who started giving in amounts less than $200, but who came back repeatedly and eventually gave anywhere between $201 and $999. These "repeaters" giving mid-sized donations pulled in 27 percent of Obama's total, according to CFI. That means that small and mid-sized donors of less than $1,000 account for more than half -- 53 percent -- of the $750 million he raised.
"They're not the same people who go to $500 black-tie dinners; they're a different kind of donor," said CFI executive director Michael J. Malbin, who's been receiving e-mails from Obama loyalists who scrimped to make repeat donations. These repeat donors were "an important group of people," Malbin added. "Those were also people who volunteered for him."
Indeed, the most important thing about Obama's donors may not be the size of their contributions but their sheer numbers. Some of Obama's success as a fundraiser may reflect factors unique to 2008 -- the wide-open nature of the race, for example, and Obama's knack for using the Internet and social networking tools to reach a new generation of voters.
The watershed aspects of Obama's campaign may go beyond fundraising into policymaking. On the campaign trail, Obama's donors did not just give money. Donors recruited off social networking sites also became volunteers, and campaign workers trained thousands of them to register voters and organize online. The incoming Obama administration is now turning to these Internet supporters to help him enact his policies, starting with health care reform.
While some have challenged CFI's definition of "small" donors as those giving $200 or less, the group's analysis still underscores Obama's unusual reliance on a vast army of donors (the campaign pegs the total at 3.95 million) who made contributions both large and small.
Obama's appeal to small donors illustrates that a new model for campaign fundraising may, in fact, be in the making, according to Loyola Law School professor Rick Hasen. Regardless of what percentage of Obama's money came from small donors, Hasen has noted, the overall amount that he raised from micro-donors -- $117.7 million -- is impressive. "Obama's campaign doesn't prove that micro-donors can be the primary funders for a presidential campaign, but it sure suggests it is possible," Hasen wrote on his blog.
When it comes to election law in particular, the 2008 campaign may turn out to be a game-changer. As Malbin put it: "The issues looking forward will be substantially different from the issues looking back."