Even as questions were being raised about the timing, number and type of donations that comprised the one-day windfall, the cash-strapped campaign managed a rare political feat.
It not only amplified the significance of Clinton’s decisive win, it also achieved its goal of erasing doubts about whether she would have the resources to compete in the May 6 contests in Indiana and North Carolina.
The account of how the Clinton camp squelched that potential storyline is a lesson in successful campaign spin, a case of shaping favorable media coverage by crafting a narrative too compelling to overlook yet also impossible to independently verify.
The effort began Tuesday evening as the Pennsylvania results rolled in and reporters began asking questions about how Clinton could afford to compete with Obama in Indiana and North Carolina. In response, the Clinton campaign began highlighting the early flood of donations to its website.
Circulating in the makeshift press room at the Center City Philadelphia hotel where Clinton was holding her victory celebration, Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee told reporters the campaign had raised $2.5 million in the couple of hours since the polls closed.
By 10 a.m. Wednesday, the campaign e-mailed reporters with overnight fundraising details, stating it had raised more than $3.5 million since the polls closed and boasting “last night’s fundraising total … was the strongest ever.”
Three hours later, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, in an appearance on MSNBC, upped the ante. He predicted the campaign would raise $10 million in the 24 hours following the Pennsylvania victory and bragged that the campaign had already received donations from “50,000 brand-new donors … giving $10, $20, $30, $40, $50. It is an extraordinary day for us.”
By 2 p.m., Hassan Nemazee, a national finance chairman for the campaign, boasted to BusinessWeek that the campaign had already reached $10 million from 60,000 donors, more than 80 percent of whom were first-time givers.
Then, within the hour, Jonathan Mantz, the campaign’s finance director, confirmed the campaign had reached $10 million, though he offered different donor numbers, saying there were 60,000 new donors.
“Since our victory last night — at 10 o’clock at night — to where we are today, as of exactly 2:35, we have raised $10 million online from grass-roots supporters going to HillaryClinton.com, making $10, $20, $50 contributions,” he told more than 3,000 donors who dialed into a conference call with him, McAuliffe and Clinton herself.
“Sixty thousand new contributors to the campaign, brand-new contributors to this effort going to our website, to HillaryClinton.com,” Mantz added. “It is unbelievable what’s going on right now.”
So unbelievable, it seems, that even within the campaign there was uncertainty as to how much had been raised as yet another figure surfaced around 6 p.m., when Peter Daou, Clinton’s Internet director, told The New York Times that the campaign had raised $8 million.
Finally, about 11 p.m., the campaign posted on its website its final tally for the one-day windfall: $10 million from 100,000 donors, of whom it said 80,000 were first-time givers.
It made no difference that the details didn’t always add up — wide variations in the numbers of new donors; a conflicting timeline of when the money was actually raised. It was the eye-popping $10 million figure — the most ever claime in a 24-hour period — that dominated the news cycle.
Daou told Politico the fundraising explosion could be attributed to excitement over Clinton’s win and her plea in her victory speech for supporters to go to her website to contribute.
Any confusion over the number of donors stemmed from reporters “conflating” and confusing numbers distributed by various campaign staffers and officials, Daou contended, asserting the campaign has been transparent in releasing online fundraising tallies.
“We’re very proud of these numbers,” Daou said. As for the variations between the figures, Daou said that all the numbers and projections released “over the course of the 24-hour period [by] campaign officials including myself, the communications team and the chairman … were accurate statements.”
And he promised the numbers will be borne out when the campaign files its next financial report with the Federal Election Commission on May 20.
“Everybody will see, as we’ve seen for the past 14 months … the accuracy of the numbers,” he said, adding “FEC reports are as definitive as you can get in terms of proving fundraising.”
Except the reports cannot and will not prove the campaign’s claim of raising $10 million in one day.
That’s because the FEC requires campaigns only to list the donors and dates of contributions that surpass $200 for the entire election cycle. So small donations from new donors — the kind that formed the bulk of Clinton’s haul — aren’t detailed on the reports. Instead, contributions of $200 or less are listed in lump sums as “unitemized contributions.”
Over the course of the campaign, Clinton has reported $34 million in unitemized contributions, compared with $79 million for Barack Obama and $11 million for John McCain.
Clinton is hardly the only candidate who has taken advantage of the information gap left by the FEC reports with strategic releases of cash flow data in an attempt to build momentum by demonstrating broad grass-roots support.
Obama boasted that he brought in more than $6 million online in the 24 hours after the last votes were cast on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. And Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s Republican presidential campaign also reported raising more than $6 million in a single December day.
Unlike the Clinton campaign — which also indicated it raised $4 million after both Super Tuesday and the March 4 primaries — Obama and Paul on their websites displayed tickers of sorts keeping a running tally of contributions received in real time during their respective fundraising surges.
Even then, it was impossible to independently vouch for the accuracy of such counters. Obama aides in March admitted that a different ticker, which counted the total number of donors to the campaign, was inaccurate because of a technical glitch.
Joe Trippi, who managed the pioneering 2004 Democratic presidential campaign of Howard Dean, which took online fundraising to a new level, acknowledged that there were times the campaign would estimate daily fundraising tallies — based on online fundraising rates and how much it believed it had received through the mail in yet-to-be counted checks — so it could release figures to major newspapers before deadlines.
“Yeah, that happened, but it was around the very edges,” he said, adding that usually their estimates ended up short of the actual tally.
Trippi, who managed former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ 2008 Democratic presidential campaign and is neutral in the Obama-Clinton battle, said he doesn’t believe Clinton — or any other candidate — would fudge numbers.
“I don’t know of a campaign that’s really done that, because the danger is you do have to report and sooner or later you’d get caught,” he said.
Either way, by midda Thursday, it no longer mattered. The media had moved on. And the Clinton campaign was already pitching a next-day story that would keep the $10 million day in the news by explaining how its online strategy paved the way for the boom.
Ben Smith contributed to this report.