- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In a political career already noted for historic breakthroughs, President Obama is poised in 2012 to chalk up another: the nation’s first $1 billion candidate.

With the 2012 election more than 19 months out, Mr. Obama’s team is preparing to again tap into the army of small-dollar donors who powered his record-breaking 2008 money haul. Replicating that success will depend in part on whether the president can convince his most fervent supporters to overlook disappointments on campaign promises such as immigration reform and closing the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

As the incumbent this time, Mr. Obama has advantages that could catapult him beyond that 2008 total of $745 million - including the bully pulpit of the presidency itself and access to institutional money that wasn’t there when he ran as an outsider.

Add to that the 13 million grass-roots supporters from the 2008 campaign — a list that has been dutifully maintained by the Democratic National Committee under the moniker of Organizing for America — and 2012 looks like an eye-popping year for political fundraising.

“Just given the base he begins with and the ability to go out and raise money online now, I expect he will end up being the first billion-dollar candidate,” said Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a government professor at Colby College.

At the same time, Mr. Corrado noted, the task won’t be “as easy as people suggest” given that presidents running for re-election historically experience drop-offs among previous donors.

Small-dollar army

In 2008, 34 percent of the cash Mr. Obama raised after securing the Democratic nomination came from donations of $200 or less, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. That proportion compensated for the campaign’s ban on money from lobbyists and political action committees and was a source of pride for Mr. Obama, a former community organizer who used the donations to bolster his grass-roots credentials.

It’s an open question how many of the small-dollar donors will return, but CFI Executive Director Michael Malbin said the president is likely to get much more support from major donors who were locked up early in 2008 by candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Democratic sources say Mr. Obama is likely to file paperwork for his re-election campaign late this month or in early April — but that doesn’t mean he’ll be hitting the campaign trail any time soon.

Instead, filing the papers will give campaign manager Jim Messina, his former White House deputy chief of staff, a chance to set up shop in Chicago with deputies Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the DNC executive director, and Julianna Smoot, a veteran Democratic fundraiser and former White House social secretary.

Wild card

One fundraising factor beyond the president’s control is the Republican presidential nominee.

The GOP could pick a “mainstream candidate or they could pick a goofball,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, adding that it’s a lot more likely that Mr. Obama will surpass $1 billion if the GOP nominee “scares” Democrats.

Against the front-runners in the crowded field of GOP contenders, Mr. Obama is polling moderately well.

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