Media Focused on Big Bush Donors, Paying Little Attention to Obama's Fat Cats

July 14th, 2011 3:53 PM

It's no secret that most campaigns are heavily funded by big checks from lobbyists, PACs, and rich donors, but President Obama's campaign team is turning away from that assertion, instead showcasing the claim that it is 98-percent-funded by grassroots support. Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, said "we did this from the bottom up," pushing the idea that the $86 million fundraising figure released on Wednesday was fueled almost entirely by grassroots organizers.

While 98 percent of the checks may have come from grassroots donors, it doesn't mean that 98 percent of the money did. Many media outlets are taking the bait and are ignoring the two percent of donors whose contributions may turn out to be a far greater portion of Obama's campaign funds than Messina is making them out to be.

For comparison, eight years ago when then-President George W. Bush was ramping up for his re-election campaign, the media magnified a small fraction of extremely wealthy donors to be the image of his campaign.

Obama's campaign won't release the details of the remaining two percent of donors until tomorrow, when the Federal Election Commission has set its filing deadline. This allows for three full days of coverage of his 98 percent grassroots support, and the weekend to bury any stories about the rich donors who are fueling Obama's campaign.

While Obama's campaign fundraising data won't be available until tomorrow, the Democratic National Committee, which in effect acts as a secondary campaign team for Obama, files monthly reports on their donations. Tim Carney analyzed the DNC's monthly reports from this year, and found that Obama's campaign isn't as grassroots as Messina is making it out to be:

Of the $31.1 million the DNC has raised in contributions this year, almost two-thirds -- $19.3 million -- has come from individuals giving $10,000 or more, according to my analysis of FEC data. So, judging by all available data, rich people cutting big checks are providing an overwhelming majority of Obama's re-election money.

Obama's reliance on rich donors cutting five-figure checks isn't unusual or surprising, but it does clash with the image his campaign puts forward. Messina's web videos, like most of Obama's fundraising emails, push the myth that the campaign is mostly funded by ordinary people cutting $50 checks. It may be true that 98 percent of donations to the Obama campaign were $250 or less, but that's not a very telling statistic.

First, a donor could cut 20 $250 checks to contribute the $5,000 maximum to the campaign. More importantly, Messina never broke down that 98 percent and 2 percent by dollar amount. Maybe half of the campaign's money came from that "richest 2 percent," to adapt an Obama phrase.

Also, Messina was only parsing contributions to Obama for America (where donors are limited to $2,500 for the primary, and $2,500 for the general), and not the contributions to the DNC (where donors can give $30,800 per year), thus skewing the data toward smaller contributions.

Not only does Obama have the backing of a number of wealthy donors, but many of these donors are celebrities, banking groups, and businessmen.

DNC donors this year include plenty of Hollywood types like Stephen Spielberg and George Clooney, but also "fat cat" bankers from Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank. Throughout the DNC donor list you'll find politically connected businessmen profiting off of Obama's stimulus and energy policies. Wind power developer Thomas Carnahan (whose father was a governor, mother was a senator, brother is a congressman and sister was secretary of state) gave $30,500 to Obama, who has created a handful of new subsidies for wind power.

"We didn't accept one single dollar from Washington lobbyists," Messina also bragged. This is technically true, using a narrow definition of "Washington lobbyist." For example, Cantwell Muckenfuss is a lawyer at the K Street lobbying firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He has long been a registered lobbyist with clients including Walmart and General Electric. Last summer, Muckenfuss de-registered as a lobbyist. In May, he gave $30,800 to the DNC.

Admittedly, GOP candidates are often fueled by the same types of rich donors, but the media makes a far greater deal about it for them. In 2000 and 2004, Bush endowed a total of 940 people the titles of "Pioneer" and "Ranger" to his biggest donors, a tiny fraction of supporters who financed a large portion of his campaign, and the media quickly branded his entire campaign by these elite fundraisers instead of his middle-class small-dollar donors.

In 2004, the Washington Post ran a front-page piece on the extravagance of these donors. The first two paragraphs of the piece read:

Joined by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and a host of celebrities, hundreds of wealthy Republicans gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge here in the first weekend in April, not for a fundraiser but for a celebration of fundraisers. It was billed as an "appreciation weekend," and there was much to appreciate.

As Bush "Pioneers" who had raised at least $100,000 each for the president's reelection campaign, or "Rangers" who had raised $200,000 each, the men and women who shot skeet with Cheney, played golf with pros Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller and laughed at the jokes of comedian Dennis Miller are the heart of the most successful political money operation in the nation's history. [...]

Comparatively, the Post didn't mention the potential for wealthy donors to Obama's campaign until the 14th of 19 paragraphs in its piece on Obama's 2012 fundraising.

[...] Much of the tens of millions Obama raised through the Democratic National Committee came from big fundraising events that the president attended throughout the spring. Donors to the DNC can give up to $30,800, and many of those who made the maximum contribution got to attend intimate, invitation-only dinners at which the president took their questions behind closed doors.

The New York Times ran a similar piece on Bush's fundraising, detailing the close friendship the Bush campaign had with upper echelon Wall Street bankers.

A study to be released today shows that the financial community has surpassed all other groups, including lawyers and lobbyists, as the top industry among Mr. Bush's elite fund-raisers. The list of those generating $100,000 and $200,000 now includes chief executives like Henry M. Paulson of Goldman Sachs, John J. Mack of Credit Suisse First Boston and Stanley O'Neal of Merrill Lynch, whose firm has already raised twice the amount for Mr. Bush's re-election that it did during the entire 2000 campaign cycle.

In covering Obama fundraisers, though, the Times also neglected to mention wealthy donors until the 14th of 15 paragraphs, explaining the possible disparity between the funds donated by wealthy supporters over grassroots supporters.

But the campaign declined to say Wednesday what was the actual proportion of the $86 million it raised from such donors, during a period when the president attended a significant number of fund-raisers for wealthy donors who typically give thousands of dollars, along with small-donor events.

This strategy allowed the media to paint Bush's campaign as being funded almost entirely by the wealthy elite, just as they are painting Obama's campaign as being funded almost entirely by middle-class grassroots supporters. As Carney expertly explains, though, "In truth, Obama's campaign is like every other presidential campaign -- mostly funded by wealthy individuals and special interests, many of whom profit from the president's policies."