The influence game

I ran into Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics–a (truly) nonpartisan outfit that tracks money as it flows through the political system. Buying influence and access is not quite as straightforward as it used to be, he explains. You have to go to a bit more trouble over it. But the people in the skyboxes at this event (as for sure at the Republican convention next week) include many of the usual suspects.

Barack Obama’s 500-plus bundlers have raised at least one-fifth of his total cash. Most of the money John McCain has raised has resulted from the efforts of just over 500 bundlers–a plurality of whom are lobbyists. Bundlers, who are now listed for both Obama and McCain in OpenSecrets.org’s presidential section, collect checks from others for a single candidate and “bundle” them together. Starting with the conventions, where they’re invited to the best parties and given prime seats inside the hall, each bundler stands to be well connected should his or her candidate win the presidency.

Not that they need the boost. Among the bundlers are some of the richest people in the world, including hotel and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (third richest, according to Forbes magazine), oilman George Kaiser (ranked 26th) and filmmaker David Geffen (ranked 52nd). A decade ago such high rollers would simply write a check to their party of choice, but campaign finance reforms prohibiting that–ironically sponsored by McCain–now curtail party donations at $28,500. To get around that, these socialites are boosting their candidate’s bottom line with a little help from their friends.

Lax rules on corporate funding of the conventions also constitute a significant loophole in the campaign-finance rules:

Private money, expected to exceed $112 million for the two conventions combined, will pay for an estimated 80% of their cost. As of August 8, 2008, 173 organizational donors — overwhelmingly corporations but also several trade unions — had been identified on convention city “host committee” websites. These organizations have responded to solicitations from partisan elected officials and fundraisers dispatched by the host committees. These solicitors have dangled promises of access to grateful federal elected officials.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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