Are small donors abandoning Obama, too?

Don’t get too excited by this report from BuzzFeed; it’s not what you think, at least not entirely.  Despite having the advantages of incumbency and the biggest e-mail list in history, Ben Smith and Rebecca Elliott report that the Barack Obama campaign has suffered a dramatic drop in small-donor fundraising — as in a 90% decline (via Twitchy):

In 2008, more than 550,000 gave more than $200 to Barack Obama, entering their names in the longest list of individual donors ever seen in American politics.

That list was a snapshot of the hope Obama inspired in a cross sections of liberals, young professionals, African-Americans, and Democrats who saw in him a generational and historic moment. But now, as Obama struggles to keep pace with his 2008 fundraising clip, that list offers a cross-section of Democratic disappointment and alienation. According to a BuzzFeed analysis of campaign finance data, 88% of the people who gave $200 or more in 2008 — 537,806 people — have not yet given that sum this year. And this drop-off isn’t simply an artifact of timing. A full 87% of the people who gave $200 — the sum that triggers an itemized report to the Federal Elections Commission — through April of 2008, 182,078 people, had not contributed by the end of last month.

That’s not an indication of a thundering stampede to contribute to the GOP, though.  Most of the people contacted by Smith and Elliott remain supporters of Obama.  Their enthusiasm has waned considerably in four years, though, mostly due to their perception that Obama hasn’t provided the kind of populist leadership they expected from his Hope and Change campaign.  They have expressed disappointment that Obama hasn’t acted to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, for instance, or to fundamentally change the direction of the country.  Or at least fundamentally change it enough.

But that may not be the only reason for their reluctance to contribute.  The change that Obama has brought to their doorsteps mainly involves a lower economic status:

“Financially, I had more money back then than I do today,” said Greg Holmes, who works in the technology sector in Cedar Park, Texas, and gave $550 last cycle. “I’ll vote for him, but I probably won’t give any money.”

“I don’t have as much money,” said Ann Walling, a retired Episcopal priest from Franklin, Tenn. who donated $1,900 to Obama in ‘08. Money aside though, Walling is still pledging her vote to Obama. “For the most part I’m very happy with him,” she said.

“I’ve had to kind of back off my charity giving,” said Leah Jones, a retired clinical microbiologist from Langdon, Kan., who gave $1,200 last cycle but said she’s been driven to the financial brink by a son’s illness, and hasn’t even paid her income taxes yet.

“I’ve been really anxious to see where we’re going to go on the health care plan under Obama,” Jones said. “I need to be able to get insurance for my son with his preexisting conditions.”

One could say that everyone has less money to contribute, and that the same problem will likely afflict Mitt Romney, too.  There may be some truth to that.  We’ll see how he does on small-donor contributions as compared to John McCain.  Using that yardstick, though, the numbers are likely to look a lot brighter for Romney than Obama, especially considering the organizing prowess demonstrated by Romney over the last two cycles, and the early decision not to unilaterally yoke himself into public financing for this election.

Be sure to check out the BuzzFeed map that shows the intensity of the problem for Obama.  The amount of drop-off in cash appears most intense in Florida and Georgia, the east side of the Mississippi River valley, and the Rust Belt and Northeast.  Those were areas of strength for Obama in 2008, and if enthusiasm as well as donations are falling in those regions, he’s looking at a bad, bad election season.