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Small donors harbor big dreams

Big money talks in politics, but some voters still prefer to whisper, supporting candidates with tens and twenties instead of hundreds and thousands. And, as conversations with local small-money donors reveal, those contributions are about a lot more than winning at the polls this fall.

Take, for instance, the Massachusetts gubernatorial race where recent reports from all the major candidates show dozens of donations smaller than $100. The sums may be small, but the people behind those dollars have big goals: They see their contributions as protests against a system overrun with wealth and as acts of hope that, someday, things will change for the better.

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“Big money is ruining politics,” said Kimberly Donlon, a Beverly attorney who’s supporting Democrat Martha Coakley. “We want people who are of modest means to be able to participate in the process. I don’t know if my $25 will ever make that point, but what the heck.”

Small-money donors selected at random from July finance reports tended to describe themselves in interviews as active in their local communities. They compared political contributions to volunteering in the local schools, serving on a board, or financially supporting local charities.

“It’s another way of involving people in civic life,” said Stephen Whitfield, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and supporter of Democrat Steve Grossman. “It’s one way of making sure I have some kind of emotional role that presumably enhances the process.”

Whitfield, a Democrat from Lexington, has given a few hundred dollars to Grossman this year, including a $50 contribution at the end of July. He knows Grossman socially, something he says has made him more willing to open his checkbook, but he’s also impressed with what he describes as the candidate’s “liberal, progressive, and decent values.”

Over the years, Whitfield has made modest contributions to a number of Democratic candidates, making him part of a trend political scientists are watching closely. The phenomenon of small-money donations has piqued the interest of academics and political operatives alike.

The Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Finance Institute has tracked such donations at the state level for the last few election cycles. In 2010, 6 percent of donations to the candidates running for Massachusetts governor were less than $100, and 12 percent were between $101 and $250. The largest chunk of money — about 37 percent — came from donors who gave between $501 and $999.

Political campaigns, meanwhile, are leveraging technology that allows voters to donate money as easily as they’d plant a political sign on their front lawn. It’s a tactic that’s working, at least according to Catherine Bayliss, a Democrat from Gloucester supporting Coakley because of her long political career. She gave $25 online last month and says it couldn’t have been simpler.

“In some ways, it’s a little too easy,” she said. “If I had to sit down, find my checkbook, find a stamp, find the address to send things to, I probably wouldn’t do it very often.”

Online donations make it more likely that voters will see a TV commercial or read an e-mail and decide to give to a candidate they like. That’s what happened to Robert Berger, who liked Republican Charlie Baker’s TV ads and decided to give $30 to the campaign.

“Everybody’s $30 adds up,” said Berger, who lives in Northborough and has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in the past. “It will pay for a couple of postage stamps. It will help pay a phone bill.”

Berger hopes his contribution has less tangible benefits, too. He’d like to see more “common” people run for office, something he says might make politicians more willing to work together.

“It’s a shame that we’ve lost the ability to compromise,” he said.

Paul Agostino, who is also backing Baker, thinks modest donations like the $25 he gave this summer are often motivated by frustration toward longtime politicians.

“I’m sick and tired of the thieves that have been in there for years,” said Agostino, a retired police officer living in Wilmington. “This Mr. Baker, he comes across reasonable, and he wants to clean up the system.”

Small-money donors may be hopeful that their contributions will change the relationship between money and politics, but they’re also aware that politics is competitive and the campaigns they don’t like are also pushing hard for donations both big and small.

“It’s an absolutely shameful and pointless system,” said Whitfield. “But within that context I feel that the side that I’m aligned with has to, as far as is possible, keep up.”

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