Bachmann's small donors demonstrate faithby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann reports her summer campaign fundraising totals in a few weeks, $100 of it will have come from Milton Vanderpool, a 62-year-old plumbing contractor who lives east of Dallas, in Tyler, Texas.
"Interestingly enough, I just wrote her a $100 check and it's in the mail now," he said the other day.
His contribution is emblematic of the Minnesota congresswoman's campaign fundraising strategy, which relies far more than most of her GOP opponents on relatively small individual contributions from a wide base of supporters all over the country.
But Bachmann has been struggling in the polls of late, so supporters and opponents alike are wondering whether that stream of grass roots financial support is enough to keep her ambitions alive.
In a few weeks, when she reports her summer campaign fundraising figures to the Federal Election Commission, the answer may become a little more clear.
If Bachmann fails to show she raised millions this summer, the results combined with her flagging poll numbers may lead many supporters to believe she's no longer a serious contender for the GOP nomination.
According to the polls, Bachmann lost a lot of her early ground to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But Vanderpool hopes now that the buzz around Perry is fading, and Bachmann will make a comeback.
"As Perry kind of slips in the polls, I'm hoping that Michele Bachmann will pick up some of the support that may have peeled off to Perry," he said. "You know, I don't know what it's going to take for her to get more traction, but I'm not giving up on her."
Neither is Thomas Webber, a Greenville, S.C., businessman who gave $250 to Bachmann's campaign a couple of weeks after she announced she was running in June.
"I continue to give her money on an occasional basis as I can," Webber said, insisting that he's with Bachmann for the long haul. And he discounts the notion that her campaign is in trouble. "When the primaries come up we'll start seeing who gets the votes."
"I think she's on track, and she is spreading the message that she wanted to spread when she got into the race. I think she's doing the kind of work that you need to do to build a presidential campaign," Webber said.
While opponents may try to spin Bachmann's fundraising totals for the third quarter into a sense that her star is fading, University of Iowa Political Science professor Cary Covington says the reality is more complicated.
"The actual dollar amount this early, I don't see that that's the big thing," he said.
Bachmann had only officially been in the presidential race for a couple weeks when the April-June reporting period ended and she put up a big number: more than $3.6 million. But $2 million of that came directly from her congressional war chest.
"What you want to see is how many donors does she have; are the numbers of donors increasing; is the amount of money increasing from one quarter to the next? That's what I would pay attention to in the July-September period, he said. If there's no growth, "I would be concerned," he said. "That's a bad sign." (Read more: Bachmann's third quarter fundraising under scrutiny.)
Another key figure will be how much campaign cash Bachmann has on hand at the end of the period. She ended the second quarter with more than $3.3 million in the bank, which helped her win the August Ames Straw Poll. She'll need a lot more money to win the Iowa caucuses and even more to run a viable campaign beyond the Hawkeye State.