John McCain, Prisoner of Cash
How GOP fat cats will bring a Republican maverick to heel.
Everybody knows that John McCain has been trailing Barack Obama in fundraising. McCain raised a mere $120 million to Obama's $287 million through May of this year (the most recent data that are available). Even Hillary Clinton, who lost, raised nearly twice as much as McCain during this period. I'd been assuming that the Obama-McCain fundraising gap was attributable to Obama's phenomenal success at harvesting small contributions online; fully 45 percent of Obama's contributions came in increments of $200 or less, compared to only 24 percent of McCain's. But on closer inspection, Obama proves no slouch when it comes to raising bigger contributions, either; through May, he received about twice as many contributions as McCain at the maximum allowable level of $4,600. This included a period of four months when it was pretty clear that McCain was going to be the Republican nominee and three months when there was no possibility of doubt on this question. McCain's money problem, then, would appear to extend well beyond his inability to match Obama's appeal to the little guy. He can't match Obama's appeal to the fat cats, either.
The fattest of Republican cats are the "bundlers" (i.e., high-end fundraisers) that the Bush presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 dubbed Pioneers and Rangers. To be a Pioneer, you had to raise $100,000; to be a Ranger, $200,000. Most Pioneers and Rangers were either top corporate officials or corporate lobbyists, which meant that however fond they might have been of Dubya as an individual, their real interest was in promoting corporate interests by installing a tame Republican in the White House. The Washington Post identified 246 such fundraisers in the 2000 election cycle; four years later, the group had more than doubled in size to 548, according to the Boston Globe. In corralling these people, Bush fils had the advantage in 2000 of a core group of wealthy Bush family loyalists, to which was added, in 2004, the even greater advantage of incumbency. But Dubya's fundraising success wasn't just a matter of dumb luck. His campaign cultivated and supervised these Pioneers and Rangers with fanatical attention to detail, assigning, for instance, a four-digit tracking number to each bundler. In 2004 Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, called it "the most impressive, organized, focused and disciplined fundraising operation I have ever been involved in." Future historians may well judge the establishment and maintenance of this money machine the only meaningful accomplishment of Dubya's two-term presidency.
In the July 1 Boston Globe, Brian C. Mooney reports that this group of rich Republicans, whose dedication Bush fanned to a white heat, feels decidedly lukewarm toward McCain. Granted, the turnover rate among top-tier bundlers can be high. Even rich people must struggle to scare up this much money; only about half the original team from 2000 re-upped in 2004. Jack Abramoff is no longer available because he's in prison, serving a five-year term for committing fraud. Ken Lay is no longer available because he dropped dead while awaiting sentencing for committing fraud. But forget bundling. According to Mooney, fewer than half of the 2004 Pioneers and Rangers have bothered even to contribute their own money to McCain. Nearly one-third have yet to contribute to any candidate. Of the 43 percent who did contribute to McCain, 58 percent covered their bets by contributing also to other candidates, and 38 percent held off until after McCain was the putative nominee. This constitutes concrete evidence that the Republican base still hasn't warmed to McCain.
For McCain, this isn't all bad news. After all, it suggests that at least one well-informed constituency takes seriously McCain's claim to be a maverick. As Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, told the Globe, "It appears you've proved that John McCain isn't Bush's third term after all." The problem is that it's the wrong constituency. To independents and conservative Democrats, McCain needs to come across as a maverick. To the base, he needs to come across as a conformist. In the end, the great majority of Bush's Pioneers and Rangers will probably donate money to McCain because they have nowhere else to go. But the longer they make McCain wait, the more McCain will have to ingratiate them by dancing further and further to the right, which is exactly what he's been doing. In that sense, McCain isn't a maverick at all. By playing hard-to-get, the corporate ruling class has taken McCain hostage. The ransom won't be small.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of John McCain by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.