Obama, first lady, VP combine for 45 fundraisers since official campaign launch

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President Obama at a Democratic fundraiser

Charles Dharapak/AP

As President Obama and his Republican challengers raced towards the June 30 reporting deadline, a flurry of desperate-sounding emails went out to Obama supporters around the country.

“Anyone worth their salt in politics knows tonight is one of the most important tests we'll face as a campaign this year” bellowed an email from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, sent hours ahead of the midnight deadline and encouraging donors to give $5, $10 or $15 extra.

But as the campaign begged for small bills, the president, the first lady and the vice president were hosting luxury fundraisers where huge checks were collected, a stark contrast to the calls for small donors. The Obamas and Joe Biden have combined to attend 45 fundraising events since early April, an impressive number for this early in the cycle.

And while a handful of Wall Street bundlers have turned on Obama because of financial regulation, concerns about the vitality of the Obama fundraising machine will be dwarfed by the golden asset in its arsenal — the power of the Presidency.

The Obama campaign hoped to raise $60 million in the second quarter of 2011. To reach that stunning total, the Obama campaign worked every angle—doubling up and sometimes tripling the fundraisers in a single day for the president, as Michelle Obama and Biden became more important.

“Certainly, the office of president provides an enormous boost most of the time,” says Allison Hayward vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics. Since 1936, only three incumbent presidents – Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush – have lost re-election.

Incumbency comes with a corps of high-level surrogates, including the first lady and the vice president, both of whom are big draws for fundraising events. “Tapping trusted confidantes as surrogate fundraisers is not just useful, it's essential for a president,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “He can't be everywhere at once; he has a country to run.”

Though the advantage is accrued to the Democrats this cycle, the Republicans have enjoyed it too. “Surrogates are vitally important,” says Mel Sembler, a veteran GOP fundraiser and former U.S. ambassador to Italy and Australia. “The candidate can only make so many events. It’s a grueling thing to run for president. Laura Bush was out there for George W. and did an excellent job.”

The ability of Obama, his wife and Biden to draw crowds means the Obama campaign can host multiple events at the same time. Since the April 4 launch of the campaign, the three have crisscrossed the country, sometimes hosting several fundraisers on the same day. These events are usually high-dollar affairs that allow the campaign to activate their bundlers, including about 450 who have been asked to raise $350,000 each by the end of this year. Cheaper events help grow the individual donor base. This two- pronged effort is key to the Obama team’s goal of crushing financially the eventual GOP nominee.

The other advantages can be just as potent. Hayward points out that the president never needs to draw attention to a speech or event, due to the White House press corps permanently attached to his every move. He also has access to the taxpayer-funded Air Force One, which can whisk him to fundraising events, speeches and appearances.

Even without the perks of office, being able to avoid a bruising primary gives any sitting president a jump on fundraising. The Republican field is still forming, with potential candidates like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Fox News commentator Sarah Palin still weighing whether to get into the race. Other candidates, such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Rep. Michele Bachmann, held off before announcing, leaving political money men less time to pick whom to back.

In contrast, Obama officially began his campaign on April 4, almost a month before any of the major GOP candidates made their moves. And instead of spending money to win in a bruising battle to win his party’s nomination, he can spend the next year shoring up his war chest.

“The value of early money can't be overstated,” says Hayward, “and it’s just so much easier to attract financial support—as well as volunteers, endorsements, and all the rest—when experience shows you are probably going to be your party's standard-bearer.”

At the end of the second quarter 2007, Obama had raised over $30 million — a number that quickly shifted the spotlight away from the presumed front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although fundraising numbers aren’t officially due until July 15, the target for this quarter was $60 million.

The campaign surpassed its goal of 450,000 donors, announcing on Twitter that it has already tapped 493,697 individual donors. At this same point in 2007, the campaign had received money from 180,000 individuals.

For comparison, Mitt Romney, by far the leading GOP fundraiser, reportedly brought in less than $20 million for the quarter.

Obama has boldly used the advantages of office as he prepares for what is expected to be the most expensive election in American history. (The benchmark is the $750 million raised by Obama for his 2008 campaign.)

He has attended 31 fundraising events since kicking off his campaign, a time period which coincides roughly with the second quarter. That includes a June 23 blitz of New York City where he attended three such gatherings. The final event, a performance of Whoopi Goldberg’s Broadway musical “Sister Act,” was met with an enthusiastic crowd that paid at least $100 a head to the joint Obama/DNC campaign fund. At a more exclusive event, the president spent the eve of the reporting deadline at the Philadelphia home of Comcast executive David L. Cohen for a dinner that started at $10,000 a plate.

The Role of Surrogates

The first lady also had a busy June. In a notable case, she appeared at four events in California over two days. The toniest event was in Westwood, where she raised almost $1 million at the palatial house of James Costos and Michael Smith — the designer who was tapped by the Obamas to help decorate the White House —which attracted such stars as Vanessa Williams, Drew Barrymore and Ellen DeGeneres. Tickets for the event ranged from $1,500 to $35,800 and the event raised over $1 million for the Obama re-election effort. Estimates put the first lady’s two days in California as netting the campaign upwards of $2.5 million.

On June 30, the final day of the fundraising quarter, she attended three fundraisers in New England while her husband attended two in Philadelphia. The tab for the first lady’s travel was picked up by taxpayers, as the campaign events were scheduled around an official event “to show appreciation to the Vermont National Guard and their families.”

Biden has headlined big money events in Chicago, Denver and other cities. On June 21, he flew into Obama’s hometown for an event at the Riva Crab House on Navy Pier, where tickets were priced at $5,000 or $10,000 a pop. On May 20, the VP was the big draw at a breakfast fundraiser at the Denver Athletic Club which also featured David Plouffe, the 2008 campaign manager who is now a top White House aide.

Since early April, the first lady has appeared at nine fundraising events and the vice president at five.

Krumholz isn’t surprised the White House’s top surrogates have been active, even this early in the cycle. “The first lady and vice president are celebrities in their own right, so they generate excitement, and attendance, at these events. They also help attract new donors, bringing their own star power to help widen potential donor circles.”

A number of these events have been hosted or well attended by bundlers from the 2008 campaign. iWatch News reported last month how the White House has rewarded bundlers with jobs and commission appointments.

At the first lady’s event in Burlington, Vt., she was introduced by Jane Stetson, now the finance chairwoman for the DNC. Stetson, who bundled at least $200,000 for the 2008 campaign, joked she had a “girl crush” on Mrs. Obama. A Pasadena event was co-chaired by bundler Lena Kennedy (bundled at least $200,000) who described the first lady as “the not-so-secret weapon of the president of the United States.”

And her Boston-area event was hosted by Elaine Schuster, a well-known friend of the Clintons and a $100,000 bundler for Hillary’s 2008 campaign who had not previously bundled for the Obamas — a sign that the campaign will target big money Democrats who were on opposite sides during the bitter 2008 primary.

Earlier in the month, the president spent a night in Miami rolling through three events, which concluded with an intimate dinner at the house of Jean-Philippe Austin (bundled at least $50,000). Attendees paid $35,800, the maximum donation allowed per person to the Obama Victory Fund 2012. The fund is a joint effort between the campaign and the Democratic National Committee; the latter receives the lion’s share of the money.

Standard themes

An examination of the speeches given by the president, first lady and vice president show a campaign that is already well rehearsed at staying on message.

In his stump fundraising speech, the president routinely acknowledges “extraordinarily challenging times” facing the country, both with the economy in recession and multiple conflicts abroad, but points out that “I did not run for president to do easy things.” He then lists a number of accomplishments his administration has had despite the challenges, before asking the crowd for more time to finish what he started. “I’m going to need your help,” he said to crowds in Miami and Philadelphia.

The first lady’s speeches tend to be more personal, with comments about how the president carries the burden of office. But she shares a theme with her husband’s speeches, acknowledging the challenges facing the country before asking for more time. “We've gone from an economy that was on the brink of collapse to an economy that is starting to grow again,” she says, before listing her husband’s accomplishments. Her speeches end with a call for support along the lines of “Now more than ever we need you help to finish what we started.” In fact, that specific line appeared in transcripts of her speeches all over California, Boston and Vermont.

Both Obama and his wife have their favorite anecdotes that appear regularly in their speeches. The president has latched onto a joke regarding his graying hair, which goes something like this: “I was telling people the other day, Malia and Sasha think I look distinguished; Michelle thinks I look old.” (In the pool report from one event, the reporter drily noted that the President “opened with what is apparently his new favorite gray hair joke.”)

For her part, the first lady reverts to a well-used story about how hard the president had to work to overcome her objections to his running for president in 2008. At fundraisers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Boston, she gave some variation of the same speech, discussing how she had to overcome her “cynicism” about politics when her husband decided to run for higher office.

The campaign is just getting started, and those lines will be repeated over and over and over again to rapt audiences of donors.