In 2009, months before James O’Keefe’s video sting was released, Michele Bachmann went on Glenn Beck’s Fox News show and denounced ACORN.
“Will members of Congress stand with ACORN, or will they stand with the taxpayer?” Bachmann said. “We have a fiduciary duty to look out for the best interests of taxpayers.”
Bachmann, who was alarmed about ACORN’s history of employees’ being indicted for voter fraud, had proposed an amendment in the House Financial Services Committee that would have banned taxpayer dollars from going to any organization that had been indicted for or convicted of voter fraud. Then–committee chair Barney Frank had originally supported the amendment, before switching positions.
A few days later, Bachmann highlighted the issue again, appearing on CNN’s Lou Dobbs program to debate Frank about the topic.
Around the same time, Bachmann used the media attention she’d generated and wrote a petition denouncing the taxpayer funding of ACORN. “If Congress can’t draw the line here — if they can’t say that an organization repeatedly charged with violating the law and public trust should not have access to federal funds — where will they draw the line?” Bachmann asked. “I urge you to sign this petition and join me in the fight to protect your tax dollars from being used and abused.”
While the ACORN defunding would have to wait a few months, Bachmann did get one significant boost from her ACORN activism: Her petition elicited 100,000 e-mail addresses, according to a source close to Bachmann. Later on, she could include those new supporters in the periodic fundraising e-mails her staff sends out.
Welcome to the formula that drives the Bachmann fundraising machine. For the Minnesota congresswoman, the fundraising process, according to that same source, is a “good combination of being out there, being vocal on the issues, having a microphone . . . building your list online, and giving people a way to get involved online.” In other words, Bachmann appears on a top-rated show like Sean Hannity’s Fox program or Mark Levin’s radio program, talks about a controversial issue, rolls out a petition, and watches the fan base expand.
It’s an astonishingly successful method, and one that allowed Bachmann to shatter previous records in the 2010 election cycle. Her haul of $13.2 million was the most any House member had received in an election cycle in the past 20 years, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis for the Washington Post. In previous years, the top fundraising totals for House members had been in the $5 million to $6 million range.
It’s that fundraising mojo, paired with her Tea Party credentials, that makes Bachmann a viable contender in 2012’s Republican primaries.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s tremendous success in generating small-donor contributions (defined as donations of $200 or less) showcased his ability to connect with and inspire individual voters. In 2012, Bachmann could do the same — and even beat Obama. In the first quarter of 2011, 75 percent of the total donations Bachmann received came from small donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which called the percentage “staggering.” In the 2008 election, 34 percent of Obama’s funds came from small donors in the general election, and 30 percent in the primary season, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.
Of course, before confronting Obama, Bachmann will have to face some fundraising heavy hitters in the primary campaign. In April, Mitt Romney raised $10 million in one day, while Jon Huntsman scored $1.2 million in his first day as a candidate this week.
But while Bachmann may have a tougher time selling her candidacy to the country-club set, who are able to make the maximum donations and secure large “bundles” of donations for a chosen candidate, she’s poised to be able to expand her base of small donors via increased media exposure.
Bachmann has regularly appeared on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC during her time in Congress. According to an August 2009 analysis by the University of Minnesota blog Smart Politics, Bachmann averaged a cable-news appearance every nine days in 2009, up from every 17 days in 2008. As a presidential candidate, Bachmann will benefit from even more media attention, giving her additional platforms to spread her message — and tap into an increased base of interested voters. No doubt, there will be more online ads urging you to sign Bachmann’s petitions — and between Obama and Harry Reid, Bachmann won’t run out of hot-button political topics that generate outrage anytime soon.
If Bachmann continues to depend primarily on small donors, her fundraising approach will make her an outlier in the GOP primary. (Her stiffest competition in that arena will probably come from Ron Paul, who had 39 percent of his total funds come from small donors last election cycle.) In the 2008 primaries, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, only 21 percent of John McCain’s funds came from small donors. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney relied even less on small donors, whose donations accounted for only 6 percent and 8 percent respectively of their totals.
But that reliance on small donors will also give her campaign a widow’s-mite authenticity boost: Bachmann will be able to point out that her donors, while not affluent, are passionate enough to give what they can. In a cycle with jaded primary voters, the obvious dedication of her base could give Bachmann a boost that money can’t buy.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.