Are Big Donors Really Ditching Obama?

DONOR DANCE: Reports that Chicago’s major bundlers have abandoned the president are greatly exaggerated

President Barack Obama
Obama greets supporters at a Chicago fundraiser in March.

You may have read that, in this year’s presidential contest, prominent Chicago donors have abandoned Barack Obama and are instead pouring their wealth into the coffers of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Turns out, that’s not entirely accurate.

First of all, it’s hardly the case that wealthy Chicagoans are running for the exits—although there have been two splashy defections: The philanthropist Susan Crown and the hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin. Crown, a socially liberal scion of the prominent Chicago family, donated $12,000 to Obama’s 2004 Senate run and $2,300 to his 2008 presidential campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission. This time around, Crown is a Romney “bundler”: someone who collects money for a candidate and delivers the sum in a bundle. She estimates that she has bundled into the “high six figures” for Romney, in addition to raising at least $6 million in her role as his Illinois finance cochair. Crown says she and the CEO community are “profoundly disappointed with Barack’s vilification of business success.”

The founder of Citadel, Griffin recently donated $1 million to Restore Our Future, a Romney super PAC, and another $1 million to the Karl Rove–backed Republican PAC American Crossroads, according to the online news site Politico. Griffin and his wife, Anne, bundled an impressive $221,800 for Obama in 2008; in this cycle, they have personally donated $5,000 to Romney, according to OpenSecrets, an online database of political contributions compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. (A spokeswoman confirmed that the couple has not donated to Obama 2012. Griffin declined to comment.)

Meanwhile, Obama’s biggest 2008 bundlers haven’t abandoned him, and some are actually giving far more. For Obama 2012, the numbers look like this: According to OpenSecrets, John Rogers and Mellody Hobson, principals at Ariel Investments who joined forces for this election, have bundled $1,223,091 (compared with $324,798 in 2008); the real-estate developer Neil Bluhm has collected $821,363 (compared with $160,000); and Susan Crown’s brother James, the CEO of Henry Crown, has put together $768,970 (compared with $254,219). Penny Pritzker, singled out in the media for having not yet donated to an Obama super PAC, is harvesting dollars quite nicely the old-fashioned way: She has bundled $856,500 for the president, four times her total in 2008, when she served as his national finance chair.

“There was a certain cadre of business leaders [in 2008] who were basically Republicans who switched over and supported our home-state leader,” says Rogers, the cochair of Obama’s Illinois finance committee. “It’s been a challenge to bring those folks back.” And there has been some churn among bundlers—but that’s normal, says Michael J. Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks fundraising. “For George W. Bush, only one-third of his bundlers returned for 2004,” he observes. “For everyone who drops off, there’s somebody new [making donations].”

For example, the personal injury lawyer Bob Clifford, who bundled $277,000 for Obama in 2008, according to OpenSecrets, is sitting out this year. He’s too busy, he says. (He has given nothing to Romney.) But Fred Eychaner, president and CEO of Newsweb Corporation, a commercial printer based in Chicago, has stepped up. He donated just $4,600 to Obama in 2008 but at presstime had gathered more than $1 million for the president this election cycle—and, reports Politico, given another $2 million for Democratic PACs.

 

Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivals/AP

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