By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 20, 2008
LONDON -- Sen. John McCain charmed donors over fish pâté in London. Sen. Hillary Clinton sent her husband to Dublin and London to hug for dollars. Sen. Barack Obama rallied supporters in Beijing by teleconference and sent his wife to London to pan for campaign gold.
The U.S. presidential candidates have raised more than $3 million in campaign contributions from Americans who live overseas, an unprecedented courtship of a slice of the U.S. electorate that was largely ignored in previous elections.
"They've finally woken up, after years of banging and knocking on their door, to the fact that there's 6 million of us -- that's a big state," said Susan Donnell, a member of Republicans Abroad who has lived in London for 15 years.
The number of Americans living overseas is commonly estimated at about 6 million -- twice the population of Chicago and greater than that of 33 U.S. states. Britain is home to about 300,000 Americans, nearly the population of Pittsburgh.
The candidates' pursuit of expatriates is driven by a razor-thin-close, cash-guzzling campaign and aided by Web technology that makes it easy to donate online from any corner of the planet. "It's huge," said Jim McGregor, an American investment adviser in Beijing who has organized fundraisers for Obama (D-Ill.). "I've been here since 1990, and I've never seen anything like this before."
Only U.S. citizens and green card holders are permitted to contribute to U.S. campaigns. So at elegant cocktail receptions from London to Tokyo, donors paying up to $2,300 each (the maximum contribution allowed by law) don't get through the door without their passports or some other proof of citizenship or permanent resident status.
Through the end of February, nine months before the 2008 general election, donations from expatriate Americans already totaled $2.8 million, more than double the $1.1 million raised in the entire 2004 campaign, and nearly six times the amount raised in 2000, according to a Washington Post analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
Obama raised the most by far -- about $1.4 million, more than twice the $556,300 raised by Clinton (D-N.Y.). McCain (R-Ariz.) raised $127,000 through February, although he more than doubled that amount at another London fundraiser last month. The FEC's March fundraising figures have not yet been released.
The candidates have actually raised much more abroad than the records indicate. Many Americans who live overseas maintain U.S. addresses that appear in FEC contributor records. That makes it difficult to track all overseas contributions.
For example, former president Bill Clinton raised more than $700,000 for his wife's campaign at back-to-back parties in Dublin and London in November, according to the campaign. He also held another high-priced event in London in October. But FEC records show much less from contributors with overseas addresses.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) is widely believed to be the pioneer in overseas fundraising. His September fundraiser at London's Mandarin Oriental Hotel marked the first time a U.S. presidential candidate attended such an event outside the United States, according to Republicans in London and The Post's review of FEC records.
Giuliani spoke at a lunch for 90 supporters, who paid from $1,000 to $2,300 to join him for salmon at the upscale hotel by London's Hyde Park. Before he dropped out of the race, Giuliani had raised more than $250,000 from Americans abroad.
"When you live in the era of 50.0001 percent and 49.9999 percent elections, every vote counts," said Timothy Spangler, an American lawyer in London and past president of the British branch of Republicans Abroad.
Republicans have been less prolific fundraisers abroad than Democrats. But McCain still had no trouble drawing about 100 people, who each paid from $1,000 to $2,300, to an event last month at Spencer House, an elegant building in central London built by an 18th-century ancestor of Princess Diana.
A short walk from Buckingham Palace, beneath paintings lent by Queen Elizabeth II, the well-heeled donors dined on fish pâté and veal and schmoozed with McCain and his wife, Cindy.
Donnell, of Republicans Abroad, said two more "high-profile" McCain fundraisers were planned for London in June, although McCain was not expected to attend.
In another sign of the growing emphasis on expatriate Americans, the Democrats in February held a "global primary" in which more than 22,000 members of Democrats Abroad voted in 164 countries. Obama trounced Clinton with 65.6 percent of the vote. Twenty-two overseas delegates, each with half a vote, will attend this summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Americans abroad include military and State Department personnel. Cities such as London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Mexico City have large numbers of expatriate Americans who work in banking, finance, law and other businesses. "It's a good community of people to tap into," said Josh Berger, president of Warner Brothers UK, an American who has lived in Europe for two decades.
David Gallagher, an American public relations executive in London, said he first heard Obama speak about nine months ago on a YouTube video clip. He said he then went to the candidate's Web site and started a chat group called London Expats Thinking About Obama.
"We have three candidates with exceptionally broad views of the world, so their campaigns are open to looking beyond the borders for support from U.S. citizens," he said. "We have supporters capable of networking and organizing across time zones like never before, so it's easier to find dollars and votes abroad."
Berger and Gallagher are among the organizers of an April 28 fundraising event for Obama at the London home of Elisabeth Murdoch, a U.S. citizen and daughter of Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
About 200 Americans are expected to attend the reception at Murdoch's home in Notting Hill, each paying $1,000 to $2,300 to mingle with American actress Gwyneth Paltrow and leaders in finance, media and business.
This week in Tokyo, Obama national security adviser Richard J. Danzig will appear at a $250-per-person fundraiser. Obama's supporters in Beijing have held several events at a Beijing bookstore called the Bookworm, including one where the candidate called on the phone.
"A lot of us have never been involved in politics before," said McGregor, the Beijing organizer. "I've never given money to anybody in my life -- except for $200 I gave to Kerry because I was so desperate to get rid of Bush. But I've maxed out on Obama, and so has my wife."
The Murdoch event will be Obama's third in London since October. Michelle Obama appeared at an event where 400 supporters paid $100 each to attend a large meet-and-greet, followed by a smaller gathering for people who paid $2,300 each.
Ruthie Rogers, an American chef and restaurant owner in London, is helping organize the Murdoch fundraiser. Before she became an avid Obama backer, Rogers hosted a Clinton fundraiser in November featuring Bill Clinton. The cocktail party at her Chelsea home drew 170 people, all of whom "maxed out" with a $2,300 contribution to Sen. Clinton -- adding just under $400,000 to her funds.
Rogers recalled that the campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee in 2004, was deeply ambivalent about expats. Rogers said that, at the request of the Kerry campaign, she organized a fundraiser at her home featuring a private performance by singer Elton John, but Kerry's aides abruptly told her to cancel the event because they were afraid Kerry would look "too European."
"Now," Rogers said, "everybody's much more bold and feeling much more confident."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington and correspondents Edward Cody in Beijing and Blaine Harden in Tokyo contributed to this report.