By Nick Winnie

In this whirlwind first quarter of fundraising, Barack Obama has once again caused a stir, raising an unexpectedly high amount of money in a manner that is markedly different from others in the field.

The Obama campaign released its fundraising numbers on Apr. 4, revealing that it had received $25 million from a broad base of 100,000 donors in the first three months of 2007. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to gain total financial dominance over her adversaries for the duration of the campaign, but she currently only holds a narrow lead in campaign dollars, with $26 million raised from 50,000 donors.

Half of Obama’s contributors donated to the campaign through his official website, www.barackobama.com, bringing in approximately $7 million to the candidate’s coffers, mostly in the form of small individual donations.

His campaign’s effort to rally around small individual donations aims to distance Obama from the political stigma associated with candidates who rely on larger contributions from special interest groups and political action committees, which are often established by major corporations.

“The Internet has opened up the fundraising to a much more-vast audience,” said Heather Stephens of the UC Santa Cruz Democrats. “It is now much easier to give small amounts of money and reach a greater amount of people.”

Henry Kramer, a spokesperson for Students for Barack Obama, said that his organization views the Internet as a grassroots tool that allows the campaign to gain the support of people who have never before donated to a presidential campaign.

“He is reaching back to the people to find the people’s answers to today’s problems,” Kramer said.

Dan Wirls, a professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz, expressed doubt surrounding the idea of the Internet as a tool for grassroots politics.

“People like to talk about the Internet as a democratizing device, but the ‘digital divide’ still exists,” Wirls said. “It still has a socioeconomic bias, [because] most of the individual contributions are still coming from educated, relatively well-off people.”

While it is difficult to evaluate the exact socioeconomic makeup of Obama’s donor base, and it is debatable whether the Internet is truly a democratizing tool in politics, it is widely accepted that Obama has used the Internet more successfully than any other candidate at this point in the campaign. It has helped him establish a donor base greater than both Clinton’s and Edwards’ combined.

Still, as Stephens emphasized, it is impossible to predict a candidate’s success solely based on how much money he or she raises early on; Stephens cites Bill Clinton’s inability to match his Democratic opponents’ fundraising efforts early in the ’92 campaign to illustrate this point.

Kramer, of Students for Barack Obama, said his organization is pleased with Obama’s early successes.

“We are incredibly enthusiastic about the numbers, but we feel this way primarily because they show how excited people are about our candidate,” Kramer said. “Money alone doesn’t win elections, but this excitement and broad support will carry [Obama] through.”

In this particular primary election season, the early fundraising efforts may actually prove to be important; many states have decided to move the primary election date to early February.

According to Wirls, “While there are politicians who can triumph without leading the pack financially, with this early primary election, early campaign money matters even more.”