Following on the heels of Howard Dean's groundbreaking presidential campaign in 2004, where Dean's campaign guru, Joe Trippi, brilliantly employed the power of the internet to market and raise money, Barack Obama has smashed their apparatus and resurrected an entirely new fundraising beast.
On the surface, Obama's approach to raising funds for his candidacy seems to be breaking from the norm, relying not on money from lobbyists or those issue-oriented Political Action Committees (PACs), but instead on individual donations that account for 99% of the over $339 million he's raked up thus far.
Unlike Dean's campaign of yore, however, Obama is not banking solely on small online donations in order to fuel his long drive to the White House. As the New York Times reported on April 6, Obama has raised more cash from folks giving $1,000 or more than he has from small donors.
But Obama's largess goes far deeper than that.
A tally of Obama's list of his campaign's 552 large bundlers (those who have collected between $50,000 and $200,000 from different individuals on Obama's behalf) reveals that they have dumped a combined total of $31.65 million in to Obama's war chest as of mid-June 2008.
The bundlers are currently listed on Obama's official website under the guise of "full-disclosure". But as senior researcher at Public Citizen, Alex Cohen, says, one big name is no longer there, that of Robert Blackwell Jr.
On April 27, 2008 the Los Angeles Times published a story that portrayed the relationship between Blackwell and Obama in a not-so-shining light. The Times noted that after Obama lost his run for Congress in 2000, the state senator was strapped for cash, only to be bailed on by Blackwell who put Obama on a retainer of $8,000-a-month for his services as a legal adviser to Blackwell's budding technology firm, Electronic Knowledge Interchange.
The money Blackwell gave Obama would end up totaling $112,000, a nice supplement to the state senator's $58,000 a year salary. Explains the Times, "A few months after receiving his final payment from EKI, Obama sent a request on state Senate letterhead urging Illinois officials to provide a $50,000 tourism promotion grant to another Blackwell company, Killerspin."
Illinois tax-payers ended up giving Killerspin, a table-tennis tournament company, $20,000 as per Obama's request. However, between 2002 and 2004 the company was granted $320,000 in Illinois state grants. And while Obama's retainer and subsequent political maneuverings were not illegal, they certainly lead one to wonder what other dealings are still lingering in Obama's past that we don't know about.
"Any implication that Sen. Obama would risk an ethical breach in order to secure a small grant for a pingpong tournament is nuts," said Obama's chief political advisor, David Axelrod.
As of April 2008, Blackwell was committed to raising over $100,000 for Obama's campaign through bundling efforts. His name, as mentioned, has since disappeared from that list, and according to Public Citizen, Obama's camp has not yet provided them with a "straight answer" as to why. Obama's team has replied by saying that Blackwell hasn't met the right criteria to be included in the list.
And while Obama may not be taking money directly from PACs or lobbyists, Public Citizen's WhiteHouseForSale.org notes that the presumptive Democratic nominee has 14 registered lobbyists on board who are serving as bundlers to his campaign, bringing in millions of dollars, with more surely to come as Obama continues to reach out to Hillary Clinton's lonely bundlers.
While Barack Obama may be attempting to break the mold and reshape election fundraising techniques, many of his new methods are simply warped versions of the old. Obama may be perpetuating an image of change and transparency, but in reality what his campaign seems to be giving us are smoke and mirrors.