Small checks drive Michele Bachmann's big bucks

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 24 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Phyllis Hornung poses for a picture at her home in North Massapequa, N.Y., Monday, June 20, 2011. Hornung has never been to Minnesota and has no ties to the state _ other than the steady stream of campaign donations she sends to Michele Bachmann.

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ST. PAUL, Minn. — New York retiree Phyllis Hornung has never been to Minnesota and has no ties to the state — other than the steady stream of campaign donations she sends to Michele Bachmann.

Almost every other month last year, Hornung sent the conservative Republican congresswoman a check for $25, or sometimes $75.

"She captured my heart immediately," said Hornung, a former commercial real estate broker who recalls first seeing Bachmann two years ago on television — an appearance that prompted her to make a small contribution online. "There was no question in my mind that she was a straight talker and I should support her."

The $350 that Hornung has donated is a tiny fraction of the $13.5 million Bachmann hauled in for her 2010 race — more than any other candidate for Congress. But donors such as Hornung are the main supply line for a fundraising machine that is humming as Bachmann begins her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

A new Associated Press-GfK poll showed positive views of Bachmann climbing among Republicans. In May, 41 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of the Minnesota congresswoman. That percentage rose to 54 percent in the new survey. Among supporters of the tea party movement, her favorability climbed from 48 percent to 57 percent.

Bachmann isn't the only candidate for president who makes political money rain. President Barack Obama set records four years after President George W. Bush set records, and some predict the Democratic incumbent will be the first presidential candidate to raise $1 billion.

But Bush and Obama depended more on thunderstorms of money — bundles of checks collected by big-money donors, each written for the maximum amount allowed by law. Bachmann's accounts are instead filled with small contributions sent by devoted supporters. Many small donors meet her through television or Internet clips, and she stays connected with them through a well-honed system of phone calls, emails and letters.

Each gets a personalized "Team Bachmann" membership card. The most recent bears her picture and a motto: "Fighting for common sense and fiscal sanity in Washington."

Of the nearly $12.9 million Bachmann raised from individuals in the last election, more than half came from people giving less than $200. While Obama was cheered for the legion of small donors who contributed to his campaign, only about a fourth of Obama's $750 million take in 2008 came from such donors, according to a Campaign Finance Institute analysis. Bush also raised roughly a quarter of his campaign funds in 2004 from such small donors.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, seen as the early leader on the GOP side, gathered about 80 percent of his campaign cash during his 2008 presidential bid from donors who gave $1,000 or more. (Romney has yet to file a campaign report for his 2012 bid, the first of which is due July 15.)

Bachmann needs the steady stream of money so that she can keep raising it.

Cultivating a base of small givers is expensive because it requires asking more people for money and making more frequent contacts with those contributors. The campaign sifts lists of public and consumer data — examining things like age, home value, voting history, other donations and club memberships — in search of potential donors who might share Bachmann's views.

The more it costs to raise money, the less there is to spend on actual campaign activity like travel, advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. It's easier to hold down costs by soliciting major donors, those who reliably give at or near the maximum in every election cycle.

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