Even with low approval, President Biden is still a big fundraising draw. In fact, presidents spend lots of time fundraising and the campaign is now year-round. And Biden has big competition: former President Trump never stopped fundraising or campaigning. Brendan Doherty finds that changes in campaign finance law have enabled a formidable presidential fundraising operation for the party as a whole. It’s a window into the president’s connection to their party and another sign that the divide between campaigning and governing has collapsed.
Guest: Brendan Doherty, Naval Academy
Study: Fundraiser in Chief
Matt Grossmann: Why presidents still spend all that time raising money, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. President Biden’s reelection is threatened even as Democrats see lots of electoral opportunities, even with low approval, Biden is still a big fundraising draw. In fact, presidents still spend lots of time raising money, and campaigning is now year-round, and he has big competition. Former President Trump never stopped fundraising or campaigning. This week, I talked to Brendan Doherty of the Naval Academy about his new Kansas book, Fundraiser in Chief. He finds that changes in campaign finance law have enabled a formidable presidential fundraising operation for the party as a whole. Trump did things a little differently but still became the party’s biggest fundraising tool. And Biden is returning to the norm.
It’s still a puzzle given all the other money in politics, why this is still a great use of the president’s time, but it’s a window into the president’s connection to their party, and another sign that the divide between campaigning, and governing has collapsed. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation. So, what were the main findings, and takeaways from the new book Fundraiser in Chief?
Brendan Doherty: First, thanks for having me. This podcast is fascinating, and I’m excited to be part of it. So, in Fundraiser in Chief, I looked at not how much money presidents raise, but how they spend their time, which is their scarcest resource. And I make the case that presidential fundraising is a means to an end. It is frequently used tool of modern presidential leadership. If you want to understand how modern presidents try to take the country, and move it closer to their version of the more perfect union, fundraising is a piece of that. And so over time, fundraising has escalated. Presidents do it a lot more than they used to. It has become much more legally complicated in an effort to keep up with super PACs, and other outside groups. Presidents formed joint fundraising committees with their national, and state party committees, and fundraise for complicated entities.
It’s become much more nationalized. We’ve come a long way from the time when Ronald Reagan would travel around the country holding individual fundraisers for individual senators. Now it’s a lot more national committee fundraising for all sorts of reasons. And we’re in an era of empowered outside groups, super PACs, other entities that can accept undisclosed money, so-called dark money. And what’s resulted is a disjointed, and incoherent modern fundraising system that no one would’ve designed from the ground up. So, whether you’re someone who thinks that money, and politics should be regulated, or you think regulations hurt America, and make it a worse place, whichever perspective you take, you wouldn’t design this current system. But presidents have had to adapt, they’ve had to come up with evolving strategies. As the incentives of the system have shifted, and they’ve displayed all sorts of varying priorities, controversies have arisen. And Fundraiser in Chief really tries to paint a comprehensive picture of how presidents use fundraising to try to shape the American political landscape.
Matt Grossmann: So, I know it’s complicated, but catch us up a little bit on these changes in campaign finance law, especially the more, and more recent ones. I know that obviously people have heard of super PACs, and non-party fundraising vehicles, non-candidate, non-party, but we’ve also had these joint fundraising committees. So, what are the biggest ones that are impacting what presidents do now?
Brendan Doherty: Yeah, and a great question. So, when you think about big money in American politics, you have to quickly go back to 2002 with the McCain-Feingold Law that prohibited national parties from accepting unlimited donations, which they had been allowed to do. And which in the 90s, and early 2000s, democratic, and republican presidents worked aggressively to help their parties to accept checks in unlimited amounts. John McCain, and others thought this was corrupting, and he said, “We’re going to ban that money going to national parties, this unlimited money.” Mitch McConnell, at the time opposed this, and he said that “Soft money, this unregulated money, it hasn’t left politics, it’s just changed its address.” And what we’ve seen over time is that McConnell’s been largely born out to be right in that. So, you’ve had the super PACs of the most famous of these groups, but you had 527 groups, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.
Then super PACs came about as a result of two court rulings in 2010. And you have other similar groups organized under different provisions of the tax code that social welfare groups, and others that don’t have to disclose their donors. So, the modern landscape has campaigns, and parties that are tightly regulated. If you wanted to empty your wallet, and give as much money as you could to a presidential candidate, you could give them $3,300 for the nominating fight, and another $3,300 for the general election. You could give another regulated limited amount to parties, and then you could give an unlimited amount to any of these outside groups. And so parties have adapted, presidents have adapted, and they’ve responded. And two changes that don’t get much attention came about in 2014, there used to be a limit on the amount of money that a donor could give in the aggregate in any election cycle to federal candidates, and political party committees.
And in 2012, that limit was $117,000. And I’ve been told by some big donors, they actually liked the limit because when they’re asked for more money, they could say, “Sorry, I’ve reached the limit. I can’t do any more to help.” But there was a republican donor from Alabama named Shaun McCutcheon, and Shaun McCutcheon gave $1,776 to a whole bunch of republican candidates, which is a symbolic amount. And he made the case. He did that to party committees as well until he hit the cap on how much he could donate. And then he took his case to court, and he said that it wouldn’t be corrupting if he were to give an additional dollar to any of those candidates to whom he’d given the $1,776, or if he found additional candidates to donate money to. And the Supreme Court, which back in the 70s has said this aggregate limit was constitutional reversed itself, and said, “There is no aggregate corrupting effect of letting donors give legal amounts of money to as many candidates, and campaign committees as they want.”
So, as a result of that, and a result in a law in late 2014, that increased the amount of money parties can receive, party committees, can receive presidents, and their parties have started working together to form these complicated joint fundraising committees. So, President Biden, when he fundraises for his reelection, now he does so for the Biden Victory Fund, and money for that goes to the Biden campaign, to the Democratic National Committee, and to all 50 state parties plus DC. So, donors can write really big checks, in theory, over $900,000 if they choose to do so. And then that money gets distributed, and they’re trying to keep up in a world where someone can write a $10 million check to a super PAC. So, parties, and presidents innovate, and they try to compete in ways that raise all sorts of controversy as the system has shifted under their feet.
Matt Grossmann: So, you call fundraising a tool of presidential leadership, and I know that Dan Galvin in the past has used it as one example of how presidents help build their parties. Do you see it the same way that this is about the relationship between a president, and their party, or how different is your concept?
Brendan Doherty: Absolutely. So, I very much build on Dan Galvin’s excellent work. If anyone’s interested in the history of presidential party building, I highly recommend his excellent book that starts with Eisenhower, and goes through George W. Bush. Galvin looks at, I believe, six different ways in which presidents try to build their party capacity, and fundraising is one of them. So, I absolutely agree with Galvin. And he focuses on it qualitatively just generally what were president’s fundraising efforts for their party. Whereas I try to systematically document what presidents do. And I do that by focusing on presidents’ time. I spend a lot of character building time myself, building up a data set of how much time presidents spend raising money, because the president’s time is any president’s scarcest resource. And so if you want to understand what a president caress about, you should look at how they spend their time.
But I absolutely agree with Galvin that fundraising presidents do it for themselves. They do it for their own reelection. That’s what often gets the most attention. But presidents two-term presidents tend to spend more time raising funds for fellow party members than for themselves. So, it is absolutely an element of party building, and it’s an important one.
Matt Grossmann: So, Donald Trump came into politics through a very different route, and without the support of the traditional party donors originally, but obviously has evolved into quite a fundraiser. So, how different was Trump than previous presidents, and is it true that he was always looking out for number one, or has he been a party builder as well?
Brendan Doherty: It’s a good question. So, I actually thought I might wrap this book up after the 2016 election, but Trump’s fundraising was so different that it actually convinced me to extend it through the Trump presidency, because what he was doing was interesting, and there was some continuation, but also some departures. So, as you say, President Trump as a party outsider without longstanding ties to the Republican Party, institutionally, he was more focused on himself than other presidents were. Every other president in the modern era started fundraising for their reelection campaign in their third, or fourth year in office. Trump came in, and he held his first reelection fundraiser on June 28th of year one, which was a substantial departure. It’s not all that surprising. Presidents who fear the potential of an intra-party challenge. And we now sitting here in 2023, we know that Donald Trump has a commanding hold on much of the Republican Party.
But back in 2017, he was still relatively new. And there are lots of parts of the party that were not necessarily on board with President Trump, and his leadership. So, what do sitting presidents do? They build up an early war chest to try to scare off any potential primary challengers. Just before President Biden defeated President Trump, we went through an era of three consecutive, two-term presidents. So, you might think it’s rare for presidents to lose a reelection bid, but there’s only been one other stretch in the nation’s history of three, two-term presidents, which you have to go all the way back to Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. And if you go back past Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama’s three consecutive two terms, you then enter a stretch where three out of four presidents lost a bid for another term in the White House. And each of those presidents faced a substantial challenge in the primary.
So, President Trump was certainly thinking of that history, or his advisors were, when he started fundraising early. And as a function of that, in the first years in office, when presidents are usually party builders, they’re usually focused on fundraising for fellow democrats, and republicans. Trump did some of that, but he did it less than other party members. And there was some anonymous grumbling in the press, as there are only… Big donors only like to give so much over a certain period. And there were some Republicans at the time who wished President Trump had waited until year three, until Republicans got through the midterms instead of fundraising for himself in his first, and second years in office. He also had a dynamic that we haven’t seen with anyone else in that he would fundraise often at properties he himself owned. And because of campaign finance rules, the benefiting committees couldn’t fundraise there for free. They had to pay a market rate. So, he himself was personally profiting from the fundraisers he attended as he was both the headliner and the host for fundraiser after fundraiser, which is not something we’ve seen before.
Matt Grossmann: So, some differences, but it sounds like maybe this perception that we have that Trump was kind of out for himself rather than the party, and not always working in the interests of the party in the general election. Maybe that isn’t that fair, in terms of his overall effects, that he still basically built the Republican Party donor base quite a bit.
Brendan Doherty: He certainly did. And it’s important to know that when modern presidents, the last three presidents seeking reelection when they’ve used these joint fundraising committees, the biggest financial beneficiary is not the campaign itself, but because of campaign finance law, it’s the national committee. And the national committee often uses that money to help the president’s reelection bid, but they also distribute it to help with races across the country. So, even when President Trump was fundraising for Trump Victory, which was his principal joint fundraising committee, that did build up the Republican National Committee, which was then able to use those funds to help the president himself, and fellow party members. So, it’s both worth noting that Trump’s fundraising patterns were different, but it’s also not accurate to say that he put himself above the party period, because his presidential fundraising did help republicans across the board as well.
Matt Grossmann: So, Trump, obviously, as you mentioned, also maintains a business empire, and that also opens the way for other people to try to influence the president. I know several joined Mar-a-Lago, for example, knowing that the president would be there, that they would get the president’s ear, it seems like this isn’t even the best route to influence anymore, even if you want to get to the president, that there’s a lot of other ways to get to Donald Trump that might be better. Is that accurate, or why are people still going to a more traditional fundraiser?
Brendan Doherty: It’s a fair question. So, there’s a big debate about whether fundraisers buy influence, but they certainly buy access, and donors want to support the president, they want to support the president’s party, but many of them also want to be in a small room with the president. And it is absolutely the case that President Trump spending much of his time when he wasn’t at the White House at two different commercial clubs, which he owned New Jersey, and Florida, that gave members of those clubs another venue to be in a room with the president to walk up to president, and shake his hand, have a conversation, and so on. That would also cost them a pretty penny because from my understanding, neither is a cheap place to be a member. So that’s absolutely the case. And if you did that as a private citizen with the means to do so, you would have the personal satisfaction of being with the president, supporting the president, but you wouldn’t actually be supporting the president’s political cause.
So I would say that there was plenty of interest, even though that was another way to get in the room with the president, there was plenty of interest when it came to big donors, and big donors are generally the ones who are at these events, to write a large check, to sit down at a round table with the president, to go to a reception with the president, to get in a photo line, to have dinner with the president and so on. But yes, there were definitely other ways to get in the room with the president too, which we hadn’t been accustomed to before.
Matt Grossmann: So we’re talking about these largely in-person fundraising events, but a lot of the fundraising is now online, it’s smaller donors. There’s been some innovation there. I know the Trump campaign ended up signing people up for regular donations and got a bunch of credit card fraud complaints because people didn’t know that they were signing up to give the same donation all the time. So it seems like maybe the online field should be the bigger place that even presidential campaigns are focusing on now. Why are we still doing these in-person fundraisers and isn’t the real action online?
Brendan Doherty: It’s a good question. So a successful presidential campaign wants to have both a strong small donor fundraising base, and they do high donor events with the president or with the presidential candidate. And the reason they’re still doing these high dollar events is just the efficiency, the amount of money they can bring in. So you don’t always know what’s charged to get into an event, because Federal Election Commission rules require that campaigns report how much money they raise and from who, but not necessarily the venue through which it was raised. But the campaign, the party often will announce that tonight we’re having a $5 million event where donors pay amounts ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 to get in, and they get a sliding scale of access and benefits depending on what they pay. The most expensive fundraiser I found that President Trump attended during his reelection campaign, the cost of admission was just under $300,000 per person. So you can raise a lot of money pretty quickly when you have donors writing checks that are that big. And again, that money gets split up and it goes to the campaign and to various party committees.
That said, if a president or a candidate relies just on big dollar donors, they can get in trouble. And exhibit A of this is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida right now. Donors can max out. And when you hold high dollar fundraising events and donors give the legal amount that they can give to your campaign or to whatever associated committees that also benefit from your fundraising events, you then have to find new donors. And a campaign loves having small dollar donors who will give you $25, $30, $40, and you can go back and ask them to give again and again. And yes, you should ask them. The Trump campaign did get itself in some hot water because for a while their default option when someone made an online donation was to make it a recurring donation. And donors had to uncheck that box if they wanted it to be a one-time donation instead of checking a box to make it recurring.
So presidents, candidates, they want both. But campaigns often make a big deal about they’ll say, “90 something percent of our donations came from donors who gave under $50”, or whatever it is. But what they won’t say is, “90 plus percent of our money came from donors who gave that amount.” Because a lot of the money comes in really big chunks from really large donors. So a successful president or candidate will do both.
Matt Grossmann: So how is Joe Biden doing in fundraising overall and how do his strategies compare?
Brendan Doherty: So Biden got off to a slow start because of COVID. So he initially didn’t start fundraising as early as his other recent predecessors had, and he started off with some online events. Once he got up to speed, he’s done a number of things that other recent presidents have done. Fundraising has become nationalized. His leading beneficiary before he started fundraising for himself was the Democratic National Committee. And presidents do that, they fundraise for the national party committee now so much for a couple of reasons. One, the national parties can accept bigger checks, and two, it’s a more efficient use of the president’s time, and it also avoids tying the president to specific candidates in places where he might not be as popular. So you can have a president fundraise for the national senate campaign committee, the national house campaign committee, the national party committee, and they can direct that money to key races in ways that are helpful, and donors can write much bigger checks to those party committees than they can to candidates themselves.
A piece of this too is also paying for presidential travel. When presidents travel, the rules changed around 2010 so that when a party committee or a candidate brings a president in for a fundraiser, taxpayers pay most of the bill, but the beneficiary now has to pay more. And it’s easier for a party committee to pay the price of presidential travel to bring a president to town for a fundraiser than it is for a specific candidate or campaign. So Biden started slow. He’s done a lot of nationalized fundraising. Trump started fundraising for himself in year one. Biden went back to doing it in year three, which was the standard before Trump. He started in May of year three. George W. Bush started in May of year three. Obama started in April of year three, so he’s about on track there.
He hasn’t held as many fundraising events as either Trump or Obama did. Part of it is because he’s able to raise money in bigger chunks, thanks to those 2014 changes we talked about, the change in how much money can be given to parties and the change in the amount that donors could give in the aggregate. So Biden’s keeping busy. He’s not breaking records though. When Obama back in 2012 was running for reelection, he was breaking records with the number of fundraisers he’s holding. Biden is able to raise more from an individual donor than Obama could. So he doesn’t need to spend as much time fundraising, which was the case for Trump too.
Matt Grossmann: So that seems to go against our… Well, I don’t know. How much does that go against our perception that Trump and Obama were just bigger draws than maybe Joe Biden is? You say he’s able to raise the money, but is part of these invitations rather than desire?
Brendan Doherty: It’s a good question. So any president is always the biggest fundraising draw on the American political scene. And now actually with a president running against a former president, you could debate and you could try to get a sense of whether the current president or the former president is able to attract more large donors. But even unpopular presidents are in high demand and there are plenty of people who are willing to write a large check to be in a room with them. There’s George W. Bush in his final years in office when his approval rating was bouncing around in the 30s, he didn’t do a lot of public campaigning, but he still did a lot of events behind closed doors where he wouldn’t let the press in because he didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to what he was doing, but there were still plenty of donors willing to write him large checks.
So there have been a bunch of stories about donor enthusiasm for Biden not being what it could be. I’ve seen no indication that he’s holding fewer fundraisers because of a lack of donor enthusiasm. His small dollar fundraising has yet to take off. And I’ve seen the Biden campaign comment essentially saying that, “We know once we get into the election year, the small dollar donors will come home.” And they base that on their experience back in 2020 when Biden was not raising much money in the primaries, and once he looked like the presumptive nominee and it looked like a Trump versus Biden choice, then money poured in hand over fist from donors small and large.
So it’s hard to know. It’s hard to get anyone to talk frankly about how excited the party’s biggest donors are to give money. Biden had the Hollywood strike, which is interesting. Los Angeles is one of the biggest destinations for Democrats when it comes to fundraising, and he intentionally stayed away from there in the initial months of his campaign while both the writers and the actors were on strike. Now the writers have resolved their strike, the actors haven’t. And once they do, I would expect him to go out to LA and tap into that donor base.
There was a story that ran that Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow had not yet given a lot of money to the Democratic ticket as she had four years earlier, and then soon after that story ran, there was another story that she had just cut a check for over $900,000. So it’s hard to measure exactly how high the demand is for President Biden’s fundraising, but you’re talking about operating at a pretty high level. There is some variation. But there are plenty of big donors who want to give to any president.
Matt Grossmann: So you have this table in the book about prioritization beyond the president’s own campaign or including the president’s own campaign, but with the national party, the House and the Senate committees and the states as alternatives. So what do we learn from that about the variation and who else presidents are working on behalf of?
Brendan Doherty: Sure. So it helps to sort out a reelection cycle from the first midterm and the entire second term because presidents, as they’ve come to raise more money for themselves in the reelection cycle, they’ve done less fundraising for their fellow party members. But when you focus on their first two years in office, and then for the two-term presidents their final four years, the national party committee gets a lot of attention and then it’s the Senate. Presidents spend a lot more time fundraising for Senate campaigns than they do for House campaigns. And in Washington, there’s a big rivalry between the Senate and the House. When it comes to the president’s fundraising assistance, it is not a close call. The Senate comes out far ahead. And presidents tend to fundraise much more for incumbents than for challengers.
It’s only in a relatively small number of election cycles when presidents made the House a top priority. Governor’s races rise and fall. Governor’s races are of course not evenly distributed. The most of them happen in the midterm election years. You’ve got about 12 that happen in presidential election years, two in the first year of a president’s term, and then three in the third year of a president’s term. We’ve just had the elections for governors in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana this year. But most of the action is in the midterms. And overall, governors have not been a leading priority, but there have been specific cycles where presidents have prioritized governors.
The first President Bush in 1990 really wanted Republicans to do well in the upcoming round of redistricting that would follow the census. So he campaigned especially hard, fundraised particularly for governors in the biggest states in California and Texas to try to win those governors’ races to help affect redistricting. And that success helped lead indirectly to the Republicans retaking the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Interestingly, former governors tend to fundraise more for fellow governors. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all prioritized governors in their first two years, and they had presumably fond memories themselves of being state executives.
Matt Grossmann: So relatedly, the parties’ geographic coalitions have become more distinct, with Democrats concentrated in large cities, but also in areas doing better economically. What about in that respect, Republican fundraisers are still mostly in the same kinds of areas that Democratic presidents raise money in and that Democratic voters now are more likely to live in. So has that changed the trajectory of the fundraising, or is there kind of a weird disconnect on the Republican side between where people raise money and where their votes come from?
Brendan Doherty: Yeah, that’s a very good question too. So this is one thing that’s changed over time with the nationalization of fundraising. So it used to be the case that when you were Jimmy Carter, when you were Ronald Reagan, you were George Herbert Walker Bush, you would go and fundraise across the country, and you would often do it in a wider array of places. Carter’s first two reelection fundraisers in 1980 were held in Ohio, one in Cleveland, one in Columbus. Reagan would go across the country and he would fundraise for a senator in Montana, and then he’d fundraise for a senator in Colorado and then a senator in New Mexico and so on.
Now, with presidents raising more for themselves, for their national party committees and raising less money for individual senators and other candidates, they’re going to a smaller number of cities to do it. So they’re spending more time in New York, Miami, Washington, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, for the Democrats, San Francisco. And you’re absolutely right that most fundraising takes place in bigger cities and Democrats, even in states where they don’t tend to win statewide, cities are the places where they tend to do better. But I’d say that for these high dollar events, you don’t need to win an election in the city, you just need to find a critical mass of 50 to 100 to 150 donors who are willing to give a substantial donation to be in a room with a president. So even if you’re going to a place like Los Angeles where Democrats dominate, there are plenty of places like Los Angeles where Democrats dominate. There are plenty of wealthy Republicans there to make it a worthwhile place for a Republican president to fly in and raise money and leave. Interestingly they don’t go to San Francisco as much because there are some Republicans donors there, but fewer than in Southern California. So, that is one interesting piece of this, that their geographies are not as distinct as you might think, and they have changed for both parties over time as fundraising has become more nationalized.
Matt Grossmann: So, you point out that state parties are raising less of their money on their own now and they’re more dependent on this nationalized environment as well. We’ve had some interesting dynamics lately where the state party in Nevada, I think on the democratic side was taken over by some Bernie folks. And so then the more establishment folks set up their own entity there. In my own state of Michigan, there’s been a recent takeover by the most Trumpy elements of the party who have bad relationships with the other Republican donors and can barely put on their conference anymore. And so that has stimulated some interest in going around the state party there as well. So, I guess how much does it really matter what the official party organs are compared to just they’re just another fundraising vehicle, and how involved is the president in propping up these state parties?
Brendan Doherty: That’s a great question. So, presidents used to go around the country and do fundraisers specifically for state parties, and that was a big piece of the Carter and Reagan and George H. W. Bush fundraising strategy. Now state parties primarily benefit as part of these joint fundraising committees, but they don’t always get to keep the money. So, one, I haven’t tracked this systematically myself, but journalists have looked at the money that state parties get from joint fundraising committees and they found all sorts of examples of say the Georgia State Party receiving a very specific amount of money, say just to pick a number out of the air, $752,421 on a certain date, and on the very next day transmitting that exact amount of money to the National Party, because there are limits on how much you as a donor can give to a candidate. There are limits on how much you can give to a party, a national party.
There are limits on how much you can give to a state party, but there are no limits on transfers between state and national parties. So, with these joint fundraising committees, what often happens is that money is distributed to state parties and then they transfer that money directly back to the national committee, which critics have called legalized money laundering. Supporters of the practice focus on the legalized part of it. They say, “We didn’t create the system, we’re just operating in the system that exists.”
Now in 2024, Biden’s joint fundraising committee includes all 50 Democratic state parties plus DC. In 2020 the Trump campaign included I believe 46 state parties, the Biden campaign, 45, those numbers might be reversed, but there were a handful of parties that were not included in those joint fundraising agreements. And I have not been able to tease out, I’ve been very curious if there were dynamics like the ones you were discussing in play here were those parties where they didn’t trust the state party leadership to be team players either to use the money effectively if they kept it or to send the money back to the National Party Committee or was there something else going on?
I interviewed former Democratic National Committee chair Don Fowler, who ran the DNC during Clinton’s reelection committee, and he said something along the lines that state parties were less about helping you raise the money and more about helping you spend the money in that the state parties would often perform important roles when it came to get out the vote efforts in the states. They would support candidates up and down the ticket and in his telling it was more about distributing money to them so they could use it to be helpful. But you’re absolutely right, when you have party leaders who are not necessarily fully on board the team of the president, you might have dynamics where the president and the National Party are less likely to trust these state parties to use the money in an effective responsible way. But we’ll see, the Democrats are splitting up their money sending it to all 50 states in 2024. Once the Republicans have a nominee, we’ll see if they set up a similarly entirely inclusive joint fundraising committee too.
Matt Grossmann: So, you also have a chart of just total amount spent or raised for presidential races and for congressional races. And it looks like a recent explosion. I think we say that every time and then we get to the next election and we see bigger dollars. On the one hand, that maybe means that money is more important in politics than ever. On the other hand, it would seem to indicate that this activity that presidents are engaged in is contributing less and less to an environment, especially if you believe that there’s any diminishing returns to spending on these races. But even if you don’t, the explosion in sources of money. So, is the president’s activity here becoming less important just because there’s so much money in politics now?
Brendan Doherty: Another very good question. So, for the president’s reelection campaign, we have not had in the modern era a presidential campaign that is lacked for resources since presidents started declining public funding. Public funding used to be a widely used program where presidents and candidates would accept public funding and in exchange they would agree to limit their spending. In 2000, George W. Bush opted out of funding for the nominating process and raised a lot more in the nominating fight than Al Gore did who took the public funding. In 2008, Obama opted out of public funding. McCain stayed in.
He was vastly outspent. And ever since 2012 you have had no major party candidate take public funding and every major party candidate has been quite well funded. That said, having lots of money doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to spend it well. You might remember that in 2020 the Trump campaign built up an incredibly large war chest that had Democrats worried that they wouldn’t be able to catch up, but they also had a really high burn rate, the rate at which they spent money. The Trump campaign in 2020, they ran a very expensive Super Bowl ad and there was one Trump campaign ad who I believe used the term shock and awe, which is associated with military operations in the wake of 9/11 to describe what they were doing, that they wanted to lay down a marker and show that they had so many resources they could run a Super Bowl ad to help shape national attitudes.
By the time you get to the fall of 2020, the Trump campaign is actually remarkably short on cash, and Biden had a cash advantage at the end. Was that what determined the election? Probably not, but my old grad school advisor and yours, Nelson Polsby at the University of California, Berkeley used to say that there are two kinds of politicians in this world, paranoids and losers, and that politicians do things that look paranoid. They look like they’re doing things that they don’t necessarily need to do, but the moment that they stop acting like they’re paranoid, the moment they let down their guard, the moment they aren’t seeking every possible advantage, then they rotten the risk of becoming losers. So, you could absolutely make the case that presidents don’t need all the money they raise to run an effective campaign, but who wants to take that chance?
And the president’s fundraising help, I would say is far more effective when it comes to fellow party members because when you look at House and Senate races across the country, they’re not all equally well-funded and having a president come to town can be tremendously helpful. And this was particularly the case before small dollar internet donations became as big a thing as they’re now, but even now some candidates are much better at raising those small dollar internet donations than others. And having a president who’s able to bring a large chunk of money into your campaign, especially early in your campaign, can be really helpful. There was one Reagan aid who said that raising $1 for a fellow Republican early is like raising $3 for them late. That essentially the early money is a lot more helpful than money later on.
Matt Grossmann: So, we’ve been mostly talking about these general fundraising committees which are giving money to whoever the party’s nominee is. But as you mentioned, early money might be more important and there have been some efforts all along for presidents and parties to recruit candidates or to weigh in behind the scenes usually as to who should be the nominee in various races. But recently, especially with Trump, we’ve seen willingness to get directly involved and with the DCCC as well. So, the parties may be feeling that they should have more of an overt role. So, is that a trend overall? Was that just something Trump was doing or are presidents going to get more involved in not just helping the party overall, but who should be representing the party?
Brendan Doherty: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, you’ve seen a bit of a pendulum on this. There are some election cycles where parties say that they don’t want to put a thumb on the scale when it comes to the nominating process to choosing their nominees. And when that goes poorly, you then see the parties course correct and then try to play more of a role to make sure that they have strong viable candidates. You often have leaders, especially in Congress who spend a lot of time recruiting who think that the most important phase of a campaign is getting a strong candidate early, because with that all is possible and without that, you’ll miss a lot of opportunities. Presidents usually don’t get involved with fundraising all that early for non-incumbents, a lot of what they do is help the fortunes of incumbents with whom they have strong, longstanding political relationships.
When I looked at the beneficiaries of presidential fundraisers for individual candidates, the single candidate who was the biggest beneficiary of presidential fundraising was one, Hillary Clinton in 2000, but she was in a very unique position of being the president’s spouse. So, often presidents help incumbents, they wait until the general election, but there are certainly times when a president will go in and help a leading candidate in a primary. Back in 2009 and 2010, Arlen Specter, who was a longtime Republican senator from Pennsylvania, he was elected in 1980 on Reagan’s coattails.
Democrats enticed Specter to switch parties in advance of a 2010 reelection campaign where he thought he probably could not win a Republican party. Part of the carrot that they dangled in front of Senator Specter was, you become a Democrat, we will help you win a Democratic primary. And sure enough, Obama fundraised for him in the Democratic primary, and it was part of that recruitment effort that did not stop Democratic House member Joe Sestak, a retired three-star Navy Admiral from giving up his house seat running for Senate, and he actually defeated Specter in the primary, and then Obama fundraised for him in the general election.
So, it’s presidents don’t get involved all that much in the recruiting process, at least using fundraising as a tool. They might be making calls behind the scenes, but it does occasionally happen.
Matt Grossmann: So, it now looks likely that we’ll have a presidential election between two presidents, one former and one current. So, kindly catch us up on what the former president would normally be doing since they lost or since they retired after their second term. How busy was Obama and Bush in these kinds of fundraising and what has President Trump been doing since he left office, and how much will this change the dynamics?
Brendan Doherty: Yes, it is definitely a different dynamic. We have not had a former president run against a sitting president since Theodore Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft in 1912, and we haven’t had someone do it successfully since Grover Cleveland took on Benjamin Harrison back in the 1800s. In this modern era, modern presidents often take a step back from politics, but they do stay involved with occasional fundraising. Obama has occasionally fundraised. He made a public commitment to helping Democrats on the state level in particular when he left office. And he discussed his regret at not having done more to help state level Democrats in 2010, his first midterm cycle when the Democrats had a tough reelection cycle right before the round of redistricting, which was a particularly bad time to have a bad cycle. Bush has largely stayed out of the public spotlight, but he does pop up at fundraisers and he supports Republican candids with whom he has relationships and some young up and coming Republicans that he thinks would be good leaders for the party.
Clinton was a far more aggressive former president with fundraising. Most presidents claim not to like fundraising, and one Clinton A. had said that Bill Clinton was the only politician he knew who actually enjoyed fundraising. He said, “Bill Clinton loved every part of politics and he liked to talk with people about how they got their money that they were giving to him and to the party and so on.” Clinton, of course, is the only former president to have a spouse run for president as well. But even aside from his wife’s campaigns, he stayed very active on the fundraising scene. But before him, the first President Bush, president Reagan, president Carter did not do a lot of post-presidential fundraising. President Trump has stayed quite active raising money first for his various political committees for his supportive Super Pac, and he has several political committees he raises money for. He’s also held fundraiser-like events that feel like a political rally where there’s no political beneficiary and the proceeds just go directly into his own pockets. Former presidents give paid speeches, former presidents give speeches at political fundraisers, but this is a unique combination of the two where he’s doing what looks like a political event, but the beneficiary is not his political committee or a political campaign he supports but his own bank account. So that is different. As a former president, you can expect him to be very well financed as we head into the election year and he already has a big fundraising lead above his Republican rivals in the nominating contest. And were he to be the nominee again, I’m sure you’ll again have two presidential candidates who spend a lot of time raising money and both are very well-resourced.
Matt Grossmann: So another concern, an unrelated concern is that these are often private events where people might get access to information or a different kind of view, or that it might kind of change and you might get a sense of how the president really views things. I know we’ve had a series of scandals involving things set at fundraisers that got released like Mitt Romney talking about 47% of Americans who weren’t going to vote for him and wanted handouts, basically. I think Hillary Clinton also… Or Obama talking about people clinging to their guns, that might’ve been at a fundraiser and Clinton talking about a basket of deplorables on the Trump side. I don’t know if that was at a fundraiser or not, but the idea being that there’s a different view that people get at these fundraisers, maybe it’s the real view. How do you think about that?
Brendan Doherty: Yeah, so one thing I tracked was how often presidents let the media in to their fundraisers and how often they fundraise behind closed doors. And you’re absolutely right that presidents and presidential candidates have gotten in trouble for saying things at fundraisers that they might be less likely to say in public. And now if there is a closed press fundraiser, or even if there isn’t, donors often have to turn in their phones before they enter the event. Biden has actually kept all of his fundraisers open press. They only allow a print pool in, so there’s no audio recording and there’s no video, but there is a record of what he says. Biden is someone who is famously off the cuff and sometimes has said things that have gotten him into hot water, and during the 2020 campaign one aid said, “It’s just better if he knows that everything he says is going to be on the record,” and then made the case that the American people can then see that he says the same things to big donors that he says in public.
But when you write a hundred thousand dollar check to have dinner with the president, you often want the president’s candid thoughts on the American political scene. So what Biden and other presidents often do is even for an open press event, it’ll be open for the president’s remarks and then for the question and answer session, then they usher the press out so the president can have a candid conversation. The transparency when it comes to letting the press in has varied a lot over time. Part of it varies with popularity.
And George W. Bush, I talk in the book, is a very good example of this, Bill Clinton had controversy over closed press fundraisers in his first term, there were controversies about donor rewards in the ’96 campaign. Most famously big donors had the opportunity to sleep over at the White House in the Lincoln bedroom. The White House promised, rather the campaign promised that the White House was not for sale and that major donors to both parties were invited to the White House and sometimes to stay overnight, and that had been the case for decades, but the Clinton’s gotten a lot of hot water for this, and Bill Clinton then opened a lot of his fundraisers to the press in his second term, even if it led to some negative coverage that he was hanging out with fat cats.
The Bush folks came in and they said, “We don’t want to be like Bill Clinton. We’re going to be really transparent about fundraising for our entire term in office.” And they started off with lots of closed press fundraisers, and that was fine While Bush was popular, when you get into the 2006 midterms, 2007, 2008, Bush held the vast majority of his fundraisers closed to the press so that he could help candidates raise the money they needed without having to appear in public with them. So you get some interesting dynamics here, sometimes presidents like to give donors an intimate private session and sometimes they also just want less media coverage because having tracked how these events have played out for decades, when a president holds a closed press fundraiser, it just doesn’t get covered as much. There’s just less for the media to say. And they might write a piece, “Obama shuts out the press again,” but there’s not much they can say beyond that.
The Obama administration promised over and over again to run the most transparent administration in history, and their press secretaries went back and forth with the press over and over and the Obama folks would say, “We’re more transparent than any of our predecessors.” And the media would hammer them and say, “But look at all the ways you’re not being transparent.” So these tensions play out in most presidencies.
In President Trump’s, he didn’t let the press into many fundraisers. It didn’t end up being that much of an issue because there were so many other controversies. And one of my favorite Trump examples, he was used to having closed press fundraisers, he was speaking at a big event, I think it was a fundraiser at the National Building Museum in DC that was actually recorded and aired on C-SPAN. And he said, “I bet someone in here is going to record this and leak it.” But it was actually one of his rare fundraising events that was open to the press and was, we’ve got audio and video from it.
Matt Grossmann: So another potential worry is about presidential time. You mentioned it’s a scarce resource and fundraising might be a distraction. You’ve also documented that this is now occurring year-round and earlier in the process. So how much is this changing the president’s capacity to do everything else?
Brendan Doherty: Yeah, That’s a very good question. So there are always more important things a president could do than a president has time to do. And when a president spends time fundraising, that’s time that he, and someday she, is not doing something else of value. The criticism of this is always situational. It is always Republicans who say that the Democratic president is being the fundraiser-in-chief instead of the commander-in-chief and it’s Democrats who say the same thing about Republicans, but there is some validity to the criticism.
Staff try to set this up to be efficient for presidents so that they can zoom in and out of a fundraiser and it might take up an hour of the president’s time, if the president has to travel for a fundraiser, the president is still doing the business of the presidency on Air Force One. But when you add up the hours that presidents spend fundraising, it’s pretty substantial. And when you think about all the domestic issues, all the crises internationally, all the demands of presidents interacting with Congress, interfacing with foreign leaders, when presidents spend record amounts of time fundraising, it does limit the time they can spend doing other things.
But there is a trade-off, because the whole reason we have contribution limits is to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption. So if you can only give $3,300 to a President’s campaign and they’re trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, they’ve got to find a lot of donors to give them that money and that’s going to take up a lot of their time. With the rule changes and the legal changes in 2014, presidents can now raise money in bigger amounts. So both Trump and Biden are spending less time fundraising than Obama did, but they’re accepting bigger checks and that raises more concerns about the influence of big money. Who are these donors? What are they getting for their money? So you’ve got trade-offs between how much you are cutting into the President’s time. If a president is spending a lot of time finding smaller donations, or when you take in bigger donations, it might take less time, but you’ve got an increased concern about the influence of money in politics. So the controversies abound.
Matt Grossmann: So everybody runs against the influence of big donors and says that they are going to be different, but it sure sounds like there’s not much prospect for this changing, there are strong incentives to continue on the current path. There’s not any draining of the swamp coming here, everybody’s going to keep doing the same thing. Is that true and why?
Brendan Doherty: Yeah, there are not realistic prospects for this disjointed system to be replaced by something more coherent. So super PACs are not popular. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t agree on much, but both of them said that super PACs were terrible and they were corrupting influences on the American political scene. But when you think about likely campaign finance reforms, so Democrats often want to regulate money in politics more. They would like to regulate super PACs. They would like to acknowledge the practical reality that these outside groups are not truly independent and their practical functional alliance with campaigns and parties means Democrats would say that they should be regulated and reigned in and donations to them should be limited. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, a DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Speech Now case both back in 2010, are what have made super PACs so super, and short of a court ruling or a constitutional amendment, the rules governing them are not going to change.
And even if they did change, it is likely that the money would go to some new group organized under some new provision of the tax code because there are those who say that money in politics is like water running downhill, if you stop at one place, then it goes somewhere else. There are some who say that regulating all this money is a fool’s errand and you should do what they do in Virginia where they have unlimited donations, but full disclosure, but there’s not support for that politically in Congress either. So what is likely to happen is the continuation of the status quo, that you’ve got limits on donations to campaigns, you’ve got limits to parties, which are now much larger than they used to be and then you’ve got unlimited donations to super PACs.
And while presidents often have supportive super PACs, and every recent president in the super PAC era has had one, they can’t coordinate about communications. There are some ways in which they can plan jointly, but if they coordinate about communications, then people run the risk of going to jail. So campaigns and candidates can’t control how super PACs spend their money in some of the most important ways that they spend it, and so even if they’ve got this group on their side raising money at limitless amounts, they want to keep raising money that they themselves can control and so they spend a lot of time doing it. But given the lack of appetite to either regulate the campaign system more or less, this disjointed system with regulated campaigns and parties and unregulated super PACs, social welfare organizations, other outside groups is likely going to be with us for quite some time.
Matt Grossmann: So this is your second book involving presidential campaigning, should we expect a third? What is going to be the last or next in the trilogy or what else are you up to next?
Brendan Doherty: It would be exciting to make it a trilogy. This book did spring from the unanswered questions from my first book, which was called The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign. I am continuing to track presidential fundraising and considering a book project on campaign finance in the 2024 elections. There are also a number of unanswered questions that didn’t fit in this book that are worth discussing, including super PACs as an extension of campaigns, including more on presidential campaign strategy. I’m also on another track working on a book on consequential presidential elections. So a lot of my research is focused on the intersection of campaigning and governing, so this would be a different angle not focused on money and politics. So we’ll see which I end up spending more time on as things go forward, but the campaign finance dynamics in 2024 are fascinating and they may draw me back in even if I try to go in a different direction. So we shall see.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next linked on our website, How Donor Opinion Distorts American Democracy, Why Scandals Don’t Add up to Damage Candidates, How Campaign Money Changes Elections Before and After Citizens United, Changing How We Elect Presidents, and, Judging Biden in Congress. Thanks to Brendan Doherty for joining me. Please check out Fundraiser-in-Chief and then listen in next time.