Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are on track to raise more than $1.5 billion to finance their presidential campaigns, and only an elite segment of the electorate will see them do it: their own donors.
At an Obama fundraiser in February, reporters waited in a damp garage for more than an hour before being ushered into the Seattle-area mansion owned by Costco Wholesale Corp. Chairman Jeff Brotman and his wife. They stayed inside for just a few minutes -- barely enough time to scan the great room, which featured floor-to-ceiling windows and a super-sized fireplace, and spot Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates among the 65 guests.
The interiors of the homes of Romney’s events are off-limits. The closest reporters came to the Miami mansion of Phillip Frost, the Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd. chairman who held a private fundraising dinner there May 16, was to survey the exterior on a YouTube video.
This is the first presidential race since the public financing system was enacted, in time for the 1976 election, in which both candidates shunned all taxpayer money in favor of funding their operations with individual donations. That means they’ll devote more time to gathering cash. Obama already has held more fundraisers for his re-election -- 138 since April 2011 -- than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton during their second presidential campaigns.
So far, Obama and Romney have chosen to conduct their check collecting mostly out of the public eye, hosting off-the-record fundraisers with such celebrities as George Clooney and billionaires, including Frost.
“They’re going to be raising money right up until Election Day, which amplifies the question of what they say in public versus what they say behind closed doors,” said Bill Allison, director of the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-disclosure group based in Washington. “Often, they’re two very, very different things.”
It was at a closed San Francisco fundraiser in April 2008 that Obama described some small-town voters as “bitter” and needing to “cling to guns or religion.” At a private backyard fundraiser in Palm Beach, Florida, last month, Romney was overheard by reporters offering a few specific policy proposals, including eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction on second homes and shuttering the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that he hadn’t spoken of in public. The resulting news stories caused a stir.
Such incidents are among the reasons the public now is allowed only a peek at the candidates as they mingle with their financial benefactors.
Catching a Glimpse
Obama often allows reporters to listen in on a few minutes of public comments and then boots them from the room -- sometimes turning to watch them file out -- before making a personal appeal to donors. With the media gone, Obama once told supporters, he tends to be less “polite.” His campaign raised $745 million in 2008, a target for this cycle.
Romney lets two reporters follow him into fundraisers held in places such as hotel ballrooms and country clubs. When it comes to money-raising at private homes, reporters are turned away at the gated community or left idling in a van at the foot of the driveway. He has set a goal of raising $800 million.
“Alright guys, too bad you can’t come to the fundraisers,” Romney said May 17 in West Palm Beach, joking with reporters about his campaign’s policies as he headed to his fourth set of money-raising events in two days.
Allows ‘Open Discussion’
Keeping a portion of the fundraiser out of public view allows “for a freer form for having an exchange of ideas,” said Jack Rosen, a real-estate developer who threw a Nov. 30 fundraiser for Obama at his Upper East Side New York townhouse. “I imagine as president of the United States you want to feel free to have an open discussion without being dissected by the press.”
Policies to limit coverage at a fundraiser help promote a feeling of exclusivity for top donors, and insulate candidates from verbal gaffes that have the potential to overpower their public messages.
“It’s much more comfortable for the donors and for the candidates to have these private conversations,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign contributions. Yet “it’s a detriment to the public debate about the campaign.”
Bagging Mobile Phones
Obama and Romney have taken steps to ensure that glimpses into their private world of fundraising remain a rarity. Obama’s “guns” comment became public because a donor in attendance gave an audio recording to a news website. Now, campaign workers gather up donors’ mobile phones in plastic bags at some fundraisers, including one held May 14 at the New York home of the Blackstone Group’s president and chief operating officer, Tony James.
At a March 30 fundraiser, as the press was being ushered out of earshot at Maine’s Portland Museum of Art, Obama asked his 130 supporters in attendance not to post any video of their private discussion on YouTube.
After Romney’s HUD proposal was overheard by reporters standing near the backyard event, the campaign established a two-person press pool for certain large fundraisers and tightened access to events in private homes, posting aides and U.S. Secret Service agents to shoo reporters farther away from them.
Because Obama is president, he has a group of journalists, including photographers, print reporters and television producers who travel with him, even to campaign events at private homes such as Spike Lee’s Upper East Side Manhattan brownstone, where a 40-person dinner was held Jan. 19.
Public Pep Talks
Access is limited to brief introductory remarks, which often include familiar jokes, like a reference to dusting off “rolled-up ‘Hope’ posters” from four years ago, and predictable calls to action.
“I hope that you are game to work just as hard, if not harder, in the coming months to make sure we finish what we began,” Obama told 40 high-dollar contributors, including Oprah Winfrey, who were dining March 16 among red roses and white-pillar candles in producer Tyler Perry’s 30,000-square-foot French chateau-style Atlanta mansion. “I’ll be counting on it, and more importantly, the American people are counting on it.”
As his 10-minute speech drew to a close, he told the donors, “I’m going to let the press pool go.” He turned to watch them gather their notebooks and laptops before continuing.
Romney is “even less transparent” by not letting reporters into many of his private fundraisers at all, Krumholz said. The ones reporters are allowed to attend have yielded few headlines.
On May 16, Romney traveled to Avila Golf and Country Club, a gated community that features a Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Tampa, Florida, for a 200-person fundraiser. Reporters had access to a 15-minute speech during the three-part event. A photo line and luncheon at real-estate developer Dick Corbett’s Spanish lakefront home weren’t public.
The clubhouse reception where Romney spoke publicly included a spread of heavy hors d’oeuvres of beef tenderloin, petite crab cakes and garlic-ginger-hoisin shrimp. He addressed donors including former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler and former Ambassador to the Bahamas John Rood, both now developers.
“I know that you get the impression that government doesn’t like you,” he said. “I love you, all right. I love what you do. I want to see entrepreneurs and innovators. I want to see more success. My ambition is to see more and more people able to enjoy the extraordinary benefits of America, as you have.”
Record Fundraising Year
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign has declined to provide a tally of the fundraisers he’s held since declaring his candidacy in April 2011. He had at least 28 campaign finance events planned between May 9 and June 11, according to an internal schedule obtained by reporters.
Obama’s 138 fundraisers since April 2011 far outpace George W. Bush’s 86 events during his 2004 re-election bid, according to Brendan Doherty, a U.S. Naval Academy political science professor who writes about fundraisers in his forthcoming book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.”
“There’s absolutely a tension between a campaign’s desire to hold fundraisers that are private that perhaps give a more intimate feel to donors with the publics’ right to know and the press’s desire to be present,” Doherty said.