Aided by the Lincoln Bedroom and other White House perks, President Clinton inspired entertainment and industry fat cats to shower the Democratic Party with millions of dollars last year.
But he was far less successful with the very people his party purports to represent - the middle class.
When it came to donations of $10, $25 and $50, it was the party identified with the wealthy - Republicans - that hit the mother lode.
And sent the White House into a tizzy.
As Clinton seesawed between public vows to protect the middle class and private parties with rich contributors, Republicans quietly were shattering records among small givers. Those donors gave Republicans more than twice as much money as they provided Democrats last year, federal records show.
It is this small-donor advantage, not the slimmer gap in money from bigwigs, that gave Republicans the financial edge Clinton repeatedly has invoked to explain why he and his staff so voraciously chased big money.
“It became an arms race because we were catching up,” said one high-ranking administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Their efforts paid off. Offering access to Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their wives as enticement, the Democratic National Committee raised nearly $102 million in large, unrestricted “soft money” donations in 1995 and 1996, according to the Federal Elections Commission.
The intense effort helped to more than triple what the DNC had raised from big givers during the previous presidential election, bringing it close to the $113 million collected by the Republican National Committee.
But small donations were another story.
Both parties raised record amounts for themselves. But in 1996 alone, the RNC raked in an eye-popping $64.8 million in amounts of $200 or less, more than twice as much as the DNC’s $30.8 million, elections commission figures show.
Democrats’ inability to keep up with Republicans in small donations meant they had to rely more than ever before on large contributions - checks often for hundreds of thousands of dollars - to buy TV ads and build up the party before the election, said one White House official.
Democrats say their problem was twofold.
First, people who give even as little as $25 still are fairly affluent and, therefore, more likely to be Republican.
“Democratic activists are poorer than Republican activists,” said Thomas Ferguson, a University of Massachusetts political science professor.
And the GOP has mastered the art of letter-writing.
Two decades ago, the Republicans got a big jump on the Democrats in appealing to contributors through what they call “direct mail” fundraising letters. The Democrats have yet to catch up.
“In the late 1970s in particular, direct mail came into vogue as a newly emerging fund-raising technique, particularly among conservatives,” said former RNC Chairman Rich Bond. Direct-mail appeals became fashionable in GOP circles in 1978 as Ronald Reagan’s first winning campaign geared up, he said.
Democrats didn’t catch on until after Walter Mondale had lost to Reagan in 1984, Bond said.
“We got a six-year jump on the Democrats in using the technique, cultivating our lists, getting our donors accustomed to appeals in this fashion,” he said. “They stuck with their fat-cat fund raising. It’s funny because we’re seen as the party of the rich.”
Last year, Democrats were crippled further by their own good fortune. Clinton was so far ahead in the polls throughout the campaign, Democrats say, that they were hard-pressed to find convincing reasons for donors to write checks.
On the other hand, Democrats say, the GOP had what was akin to a secret weapon: Bob Dole.
“The Republicans had a terrific direct-mail situation,” said DNC fund-raiser Hal Malchow. “The Republican donors may not have been super-enthusiastic about Dole, but they were enthusiastic about replacing Clinton.”
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