If the grass-roots energy that fueled President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign proves hard to duplicate as he seeks re-election, so too could the Internet-powered small donor base that helped him shatter all fundraising records.
The weak economy, lack of a Democratic primary challenger and no clear front-runner in the Republican field may delay or prevent small donors from opening their wallets, strategists say, forcing a greater dependence on wealthy contributors for a re-election campaign that could cost more than $1 billion.
Many Web-based activists also contend that Obama has let them down, from extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy to breaking his pledge to close the U.S. military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That's dampened the ardor of many online donors, says Peter Daou, who was Hillary Rodham Clinton's Internet director in her 2008 presidential campaign but now backs Obama.
"I will make the unequivocal statement: It will not be what it was," Daou said. "There's a sense of promises not kept, too much solicitousness of the Republican position. Many, many people are saying, 'I'm not going to send him a dollar.'"
Obama launches a series of fundraising events this month, beginning Thursday in his hometown of Chicago, before heading to California, New York, Texas and elsewhere. He will mingle with contributors who give as much as $35,800 or as little as $25.
"There's real power at the grass roots that is still there," Obama adviser David Axelrod said. "Now, obviously, we are contending with a lot of forces out there that are well-heeled."
"I don't know what the mix will be, but grass roots will be a major part of it," Axelrod added. "But we have to be prepared to defend ourselves."
The online army that texted and tweeted Obama to victory in 2008 also helped the old-fashioned way. Some 54 percent of Obama's $750 million haul came in contributions of $200 or less. His record fundraising allowed Obama to become the first presidential candidate to reject federal money in both the primary and general elections.
The president's 2012 re-election effort began last week in an email announcement to supporters. Aides said the campaign received 23,000 contributions in the first two days, 96 percent of which were less than $200. They declined to say how much came later in the week but insisted the early results were positive.
"The response we got was much more robust than we anticipated," Axelrod said. "But we don't believe in treating our supporters like an ATM machine. We want them to help build the campaign. That comes first."
Persuading online supporters to contribute money is a more labor-intensive effort than simply including a solicitation page on the campaign website. Small donors typically are engaged through web activism, such as signing Internet petitions or watching and emailing videos to friends. They might then attend a local campaign event or two before deciding to make a donation.
And grass-roots donors often wait until relatively late to contribute. They were slow to send checks to the Obama campaign through much of 2007, only beginning to engage early the next year when his primary battle with Clinton got under way. They also contributed heavily at the peak of the general election campaign, when Obama faced off against Republican John McCain.
Some Obama advisers have played down the notion of a $1 billion fundraising goal, noting that in 2008, Obama raised more than $300 million during the protracted Democratic primary fight alone. With no credible primary challenger, they say, Obama may not be pushed to spend heavily until a Republican rival emerges.
Still, advisers concede an overall lack of grass-roots enthusiasm could affect the high-dollar donor base as well. The president acknowledged the diminished excitement in a conference call with supporters last week, saying, "We may not have the exact same newness that we had."
Re-engaging major donors and fundraisers is another challenge the Obama team faces as it ramps up the campaign.
Dozens of the campaign "bundlers" who collected checks from big donors in 2008 have been given ambassadorships and other government jobs and are therefore precluded from raising campaign money this time around. Some Wall Street donors, unhappy with the president's efforts at financial regulation following the 2008 economic collapse, have indicated they may withhold support.
And Obama himself will have less time to spend on the fundraising circuit than he did in 2008, as the demands of the presidency consume most of his time. That could make it harder to engage mid- and high-level donors who want to see him at fundraising events and won't settle for a stand-in.
The Obama team also will have to contend with the emergence of independent conservative groups like American Crossroads that are expected to raise and spend heavily to defeat the president. Crossroads and other groups were significant players in the 2010 election after the Supreme Court eased restrictions on political spending by corporations, unions and others. Several Democratic strategists have announced plans to launch their own independent groups to support Obama's re-election and help Democratic Senate and House candidates in 2012, but those efforts are just starting to take shape.
"He'll need a lot of help from larger donors, but I think they will do very well on their small-donor program too," said Peter Buttenweiser, a Philadelphia-based Obama bundler. "Once things pick up again, over six to nine months, the Internet will come into play."