Monday, July 23, 2007

"Soft Money Man"

National Journal:

“It's building a team and providing recognition to the people who do that work that I think creates a successful fundraising operation. It's not any one person.”

Robert Farmer

Name Here

Robert Farmer, 68, has been a national campaign treasurer for four Democratic presidential candidates and has been called the "father of soft money" because he realized how to exploit a loophole in campaign finance law to help Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential bid -- and to put the Democratic Party on equal fundraising footing with the GOP.

Twenty years ago, his Democratic "Trustees" were the forerunners of President Bush's big-donor Rangers and Pioneers. Farmer ran the money operations for John Glenn, Dukakis, and Bill Clinton, and a grateful President Clinton made him U.S. consul general in Bermuda. In the 2004 presidential race, after soft money had been banned, Farmer ran fundraising efforts for his friend John Kerry. Experts predict the nominees in 2008 will need to raise a record $500 million apiece to compete.

In a recent interview with National Journal's Alexis Simendinger, Farmer discussed Internet fundraising and his 2008 allegiances.

Q: Which campaign are you working for this time around?
Farmer: I signed on early with Barack Obama. I'm on the finance committee. I'm just one of many.

Q: Is that the way you wanted it for the 2008 race?

Farmer: Had John Kerry run, I would have done it full time. I had a special relationship with him.

Q: In the past, you were close to the Clintons. You don't want to work for Sen. Hillary Clinton?

Farmer: I have a great deal of respect for Hillary. I think she's an extraordinary woman, and I think she would make a great president.

The reason I'm supporting Obama is because I believe that were Barack Hussein Obama elected president of the United States and [if he were] the spokesperson for our country, that we'd do a lot better in the world, after what this administration has done to our, you know, profile. I just think we'd have a safer country if Barack were elected.

Q: Safer than if Mrs. Clinton were elected?

Farmer: Well, I think he has a success story, and I think it would say to the rest of the world, America really is a land where people can come from a very -- I have to think of the right word -- a very unusual background. And so based upon their own talents, can rise to the highest office in the land.

Q: When did you first meet Obama?

Farmer: I met him at the last [2004 Democratic National] convention. I was chairman of the trustee program -- we had 600 trustees, and their goal was to raise a quarter of a million dollars. At the convention we had a dinner, a cocktail party, and Obama was kind enough to come by and speak. That's the first time that I met him.

Q: First impressions?

Farmer: I've had dinner with him just one-on-one since, and spent time. Look, he's a very bright, energetic person and I think he -- the most impressive things to me about him were when I read his two books. I really felt I had a sense of the man.

Q: Have you contributed money solely to Obama's campaign?

Farmer: I have given money to -- I will probably wind up giving to five candidates, and the reason for it is that I don't want to say 'no' to the person who asks me. I have good friends involved on all the campaigns and I have had my hand out to them, and this is important to them, so if they ask me --. I've given to [Delaware Sen. Joseph] Biden. I've given to [Connecticut Sen. Christopher] Dodd. I've given to [former North Carolina Sen. John] Edwards. And if Terry McAuliffe reads this article, he will call me to give to Hillary, and I will.

Q: You are not giving to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson?

Farmer: Ah, I don't know anybody in the Richardson campaign.

Q: What is your reaction to the enormous sums of money that the candidates must raise to compete in this race?

Farmer: I think it makes people like me into dinosaurs because the campaigns are so awash with money. And a lot of that comes in over the Internet, and five-oh [50-state] marketing, which means that what you are giving, you probably give each quarter.

I think at a certain point, you get a situation with diminishing returns. You have to spend a lot of time to raise that kind of money. For example, John Edwards' strategy, it seems to me, has been to focus on the early primary states. And when Hillary and Barack are out there traveling all around the country -- both of their schedules, going to fundraisers -- they are not in Iowa and Hampshire. How much money do you need? And how much money can be effectively spent? Not that much in Iowa and New Hampshire. And you could never raise enough that they'll be nationwide when the primaries are coming up. So, I think that whoever does well in the early ones is going to get a real bounce.

I remember in 2004, John Kerry was 17 points behind in New Hampshire. A week earlier, he wins Iowa, surprisingly to everybody, and he won New Hampshire by 20 points. So that's how much of a bounce can be created by one victory, because he was on the front pages of every newspaper and on every talk show.

Q: You're saying the campaigns need to be very strategic, although the money chase is pulling them away from those early battlegrounds?

Farmer: I think this is what is happening to John McCain. He's now changed to the early-state strategy: They'll focus on three states, thinking that if they do well there, he will be able to raise money on the Internet and get all that free press beforehand.

One of the problems that he has, though, is that it appears to me he's going to be forced to take the federal matching funds. And that means you're in the system and you can only spend so much money in each place. Based upon my experience in 2004 with John Kerry, we regretted very much that we took the federal [matching funds] -- the $75 million -- because we could have raised enormously more than that, more than the federal grant. I went over to the [Democratic National Committee] and raised a lot of money, but we couldn't coordinate [by law]. The campaign couldn't tell the DNC how to spend it. So I don't think any nominee will take the federal grant this time.

Q: Where do you think Sen. John McCain's campaign went wrong?

Farmer: Let me say first that nobody stops running for president. They run out of money. That's the reason in every campaign I've ever seen. I've served as the national treasurer of four presidential campaigns: Kerry, Clinton, Dukakis, and before that, John Glenn. Nobody wants to stop running for president; they just run out of money.

I can't speak to the McCain campaign strategy, but obviously they staffed up with the expectation that they were going to raise a great deal of money. They ran into fundraising problems, and they weren't agile enough to cut down on their expenses.

You've got to be able to build up a kitty for the advertising. For example, you can saturate the market in Iowa with about $5.5 million now; somewhat more in New Hampshire, because you have the Boston media market. So, Edwards is focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire. He felt from day one, if he could raise $40 million to $45 million, he'd have enough money to compete every bit as much as anybody else in Iowa and New Hampshire, and if he were successful in those two states, generally that gives a sense of momentum, and he can move on from there, and the money comes flooding over the Internet.

Q: What has the war in Iraq added to campaign fundraising?

Farmer: I think it creates a passion among certain voters, certain people, to want to make a change. I certainly saw that in '04, and I'm sure we're seeing it in '08.

Q: You talk about being turned into a dinosaur by this big-money race. You're seen as the man who invented the soft money phenomenon, in 1988.

Farmer: What I did [for Dukakis] was I got a team of people, and that's what we did in 2004 with the Trustees [for Kerry]. I can remember being in a meeting, and people said five of us should get on the phone and call everybody.

I've always felt that people give money because they don't want to say 'no' to the person who asked them. My job was not to raise money so much, but to build a team and make them feel like something significant, and recognize them. I thought it was important to recruit. As it turned out, we were hoping to recruit 100, and we got 600 people who made calls for us and said, 'This is important. Will you do it? I'm doing it.' So, it's building a team and providing recognition to the people who do that work that I think creates a successful fundraising operation. It's not any one person.

Q: Do you look back and say, 'I helped blow off the lid on this money chase'?

Farmer: I'm always skeptical when they pass a new law on campaign finance because it often becomes a blueprint on how to get around it, as you saw with the 527s. Those people who funded those operations, very wealthy people, had a tremendous impact, for better or for worse, depending on what your political views are. I am just one of many people who have been involved in the process, who cares about issues. It's been a great joy for me to have been involved in the process, and it is great fun to be part of it.

Q: What is the impact of the Internet on fundraising?

Farmer: That's the most dramatic change that I've seen over the last two campaigns. I think the Internet is very important, because it enables the average person to participate in the process, and before it was always people who wrote $1,000 and now $2,300 checks. But now it's $10, and $20 and $40. Senator Obama has 250-odd-thousand people who have done this through his campaign.

Q: Do you fear that this has become such an expensive enterprise to run for president that quality candidates don't have a chance?

Farmer: That's a very good question. I think you'd be much better off with a system somewhat like the British, where public media was made available; shorter campaigns; and people got a chance.

Now, on the other hand, I think these debates would be much more meaningful if some of the candidates who had not reached a certain bar in terms of fundraising, or standing in the polls, or whatever, were barred. I mean, right now, if I wanted to, I could declare for president and insist that I be on the ballot, or if I wanted to put $1 million of my own money into it (which I could not afford to do) -- but anybody can do it, as we've seen in the past. It diminishes everybody.

There are several serious candidates. I'm thinking of the Democrats more than the Republicans, but I understand they have the same problem, too. In an hour, hour-and-a-half debate, you'd like to hear what they think about things; you'd like to get in their minds a little more and not just do sound bites.

Q: Should the threshold for an invitation to a debate ever be money raised by a candidate?

Farmer: I think that's one criterion. For example, under the old rules for federal matching money, you had to have raised $5,000 in $250 contributions from 35 states. You had to demonstrate that you had the ability, before you qualified for matching funds, so there is a precedent for some sort of standard. Now, I'd leave it to the politicians to decide what a fair standard would be, but I think it would serve the process better if you didn't have these cattle shows of people.

Q: What does an effective fundraising operation tell a voter about a presidential candidate? What do they learn?

Farmer: I've never seen anybody bet $2 on a horse and not root for them all around the track [chuckles]. A good fundraising operation is made up of people. It's all those on the finance committee.

I remember one time being invited by a governor of a Western state [Washington], whose wife had financed his first campaign. His wife thought it would be nicer for re-election if it was more publicly financed. And so he invited me out for dinner, and I went out, and we had a three-hour dinner. I ran into him about a year later and I said, 'How's it going governor?' and he said, 'Things are going very well, and I learned one thing from the dinner with you.' And I was a little bit upset because we talked, after all, for three hours, but I'm always willing to learn. So I said, 'What was that?' And he said, 'Well, if I went to Tacoma, and walked into somebody's house and there was a really big crowd, I'd say to myself, wow, I didn't realize how popular I was in Tacoma. After the dinner with you, I said, wow, I hadn't realized how popular the host was in Tacoma.'

So, a lot of this has to do with putting together a fundraising group or committee of credible people who have the resources and the networks to be effective. And when I talk to people, I try to explain to them why it serves them well to get involved early and become what is called part of the family. And they are not looking for contracts, and they are not looking for anything improper. People who have been successful like to climb mountains and this is another mountain to climb.

Fundraising provides an entree for people to be part of the political process. And since it is so important to us all, I encourage everybody to be involved, whatever side of the aisle that they're on. I think it's a good thing for our democracy.

No comments: