If you need further evidence that the game of political fund-raising has changed irrevocably, consider the case of Maureen White, a powerful New York Democrat who has helped raise $10 million for something called the Presidential Fund.
Inprevious elections,Ms. White’s primary role was to help solicit massive soft-money contributions for all sorts of activities, from building new headquarters to funding voter-registration drives. This time, her role is somewhat different. As the Democratic National Committee’s national finance chair, she is now devoting most of her energy to what might be considered a more challenging task: soliciting much bigger numbers of smaller individual donations to create a fund that will be placed entirely at the disposal of the eventual Democratic nominee.
The shift in Ms. White’s role reflects some of the profound transformations in the world of fund-raising. The changes include President George W. Bush’s unprecedented financial advantage, an overhaul of the rules governing contributions, increased use of the Internet as a fund-raising tool, and the rise of a host of new non-party entities whose aim is to raise and spend money to frame the issues in next year’s elections.
The D.N.C.’s Presidential Fund owes its existence, in a way, to the huge amounts of money Mr. Bush has gathered, since it’s designed to prevent the party’s nominee from being overwhelmed by Mr. Bush’s spending and perhaps disappearing due to a lack of funds at the end of what should be an expensive and bruising primary campaign. And the money is harder to come by in the first place, given the strict new limits on contributions as well as the myriad new groups suddenly competing for donors’ attentions.
“There is so much that is unprecedented for us right now,” said Ms. White, who is married to financier Steve Rattner and is well known on the social circuit. “Our old support system has diminished, and now we’re creating a new one.”
The signs of a revolution in fund-raising are everywhere. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the new order is Mr. Bush’s record-shattering hauls around the country. On his recent visit to New York, he took in $4 million (and counting) in one night from donors and fund-raisers who crammed into the Sheraton New York Hotel for a chance to mingle with the President. That scene has been duplicated across the country, resulting in a total of $34.2 million raised over the last three months.
Mr. Bush is on pace to raise-and spend-something like $200 million for his re-election bid, more than enough to overwhelm the Democratic nominee and still have tens of millions left over to pour into key Congressional and local races.
“The Democrats have a few powerful fund-raisers who can help the party somewhat, but it’s unclear what they can do in the current circumstances,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson. “Bush is going to have an unlimited pot of money to fund his campaign, party outreach and Congressional races. Once it gets to that point, it’s just impossible for the other team to catch up.”
New sources of money are also having a massive impact on the race. The most visible sign of these changes is the surprising strength of the Howard Dean campaign, which has managed to vault to the front of the fund-raising pack through a novel use of the Internet.
Consider the recent scene of Mr. Dean, standing in the Roxy in Chelsea on June 30, spot-lit by colored disco lights and announcing to 1,000 young supporters that he had just raised more than $7 million in contributions-the highest total for any Democratic candidate over the period beginning in April and ending that very night. To rapturous applause, Mr. Dean thanked all of the Internet donors in the crowd and announced that his campaign had pulled in $1 million in the three days leading up to the fund-raising deadline.
It was a remarkable juxtaposition of a candidate at once running against the political firmament and winning the ultimate insider’s game. When Mr. Dean mentioned Tim Russert’s name, eliciting a chorus of boos-he had recently had a contentious appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press -the former Vermont governor raised his hands and said: “Look, the inside press didn’t like it, but we raised a quarter of a million dollars because of it!”
Ethan Geto, Mr. Dean’s New York campaign manager, went so far as to predict to the crowd that Mr. Dean would end up raising more than any other Democrat.
The Dean campaign’s success in raising money is symptomatic of the ever-increasing impact of Internet-based political activity. All of the candidates are increasingly reliant on the Web to keep pace with each other, as evidenced by the e-mails sent out by their campaigns throughout the day in an effort to match Mr. Dean’s totals. (Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, the top fund-raisers in the previous filing period, are expected to announce totals of around $5 million. Mr. Kerry has $11 million on hand, topping all Democrats.)
In addition to the unprecedented scale of the money being raised across the board, and the rapidly changing ways in which it’s being raised, there is a host of new groups vying for influence within the new political alignment. In addition to the party committees, which include fund-raising arms for the Senate and House, other groups have sprung up to solicit donors for contributions small and large, to be spent to advance specific agendas and candidacies. Some major groups on the Democratic side include the Partnership for America’s Families, a group backed by labor, and a separate group run by Clinton confidante Harold Ickes; MoveOn.org, an increasingly powerful Internet-based organization which opposed the war in Iraq; Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice women candidates; and the New Democrat Network, which promotes a centrist platform.
It will take a mighty effort for any of these groups to compete with the Republicans. On the strength of help from the White House, the Republican National Committee alone announced a total of $25 million raised from April through June, with $21 million in the bank.
With those kinds of numbers now the standard, people like Ms. White will have their work cut out for them. Most of the money for the Presidential Fund so far has been raised in small increments, partly through the Internet and direct-mail solicitations, and partly through small gatherings of regular donors, who pay between $5,000 and $25,000 per head to see former Clinton administration officials talk about their view of the world (and, usually, what the Bush administration is doing wrong).
The D.N.C. did have a larger event recently, raising $1.7 million at a dinner in Washington on June 25 that featured all nine of the Presidential contenders. Ms. White told The Observer that they’re planning another one, this time at a location to be determined in lower Manhattan on Sept. 25. The Presidential candidates will be there and, she hopes, so will enough of New York’s many Democratic donors to help them keep up with competition.
“It’s all pretty daunting, but I don’t think that’s going to cause donors to roll over and die,” said Ms. White. “From what I see, it’s motivating them.”