Apparently it’s no longer enough for top fundraisers to gain special access to their favorite politicians. Now they need a special title too.
For Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, major fundraisers are labeled as Pilots ($50,000 or more), Explorers ($100,000), Entrepreneurs ($250,000) or Patriots ($500,000 and up). Each level gets its own raft of goodies, from invitations to local receptions to a “VIP Republican National Convention Package” including a hospitality suite, according to a campaign strategy document.
GOP hopeful Mitt Romney divvies up his biggest fundraisers with an Olympics medal theme, presumably in honor of his stint overseeing the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Those who raise $50,000 get a bronze, $100,000 gets silver and over $250,000 wins the gold.
The proliferation of fancy titles in presidential campaigns amounts to a system of rewards and incentives for wealthy supporters to keep digging for more money.
The phenomenon first became prominent in 2000 when George W. Bush dubbed his top fundraisers Pioneers if they bundled together $100,000 or more in contributions. Bush doubled down on the concept in 2004, adding Rangers and Mavericks to the cowboy-themed list.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called his top fundraisers “vice chairs” in 2004, while Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton counted on “HillRaisers” in 2008. During Rudy Giuliani’s failed attempt at the GOP nomination in 2008, he adopted a baseball theme that included “sluggers” and “MVPs.”
One exception to the trend is the biggest fundraiser of all, President Obama, who so far has not bestowed pithy titles on his top bundlers. Obama, who is the only 2012 candidate to disclose his bundlers’ names so far, does place big fundraisers on a national finance committee and has created a special program for young donors called Gen44.
Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, which studies money in politics, said bundler titles are meant to inspire supporters while also saying something about the candidate. Perry’s decision to label his top fundraisers as Patriots, for example, “implies that your opponents’ donors are not patriotic,” he said.
“I doubt very much that the label itself motivates these donors,” Malbin said. “But being recognized as being at a certain level does motivate people.”
The practice of handing out titles — Malbin likens them to “merit badges” — appears to have its roots in another type of fundraising: philanthropy. Charitable causes, from museums to groups focused on eradicating disease, have long relied on sponsorships, plaques and other tchotchkes to attract wealthy donors.
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group, said many charitable groups specialize in doling out nice-sounding titles to encourage more check-writing.
“It’s a motivation to move up the ladder,” Borochoff said. “If these are very Type-A, competitive people, they want to be at the top level, so you give them the structure to aim for that.”
The Perry strategy document makes clear that the titles are only part of the allure. The 19-page memo lays out a sophisticated, multilayered approach to attracting and pampering top donors, with special identification numbers for each bundler and an escalating list of benefits for the highest performers.
The lowest-ranking Pilots, for example, get “Membership on your State Finance Committee,” regular reports from campaign leaders and “Special event(s) at the Republican National Convention.” But the perks are much more extensive at the top Patriot level, including a title as “co-chair” of Perry’s national finance committee and the aforementioned VIP treatment at the convention.
“To restore our country on a course of economic growth, we must build a strong, well-funded campaign,” Perry finance director Margaret Lauderback wrote in the memo.
Neither the Perry nor Romney campaigns would talk about their bundler titles on the record. The Obama campaign also declined to comment.
Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, a moderately active political contributor, has made headlines over the past week with his suggestion to boycott campaign contributions to national politicians.
Saying he was frustrated by the protracted and damaging debate over raising the debt ceiling, Schultz argues that the only way to get politicians’ attention is to cut off their money supply.
“All it seems people are interested in is reelection,” Schultz said on CNN this week. “And that reelection — the lifeblood of it is fundraising.”
Schultz has given more than $136,000 to federal candidates since 1996, almost all of it to Democrats, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. His most recent donations were two $2,500 gifts in March to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).