The Contributor Gotcha Game

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HRC’s campaign just circulated a memo calling attention to how much money Obama has received from oil and natural gas companies:

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Sen. Obama has received over $160,000 from the oil and gas companies. Two major bundlers for his campaign — George Kaiser and Robert Cavnar – are oil company CEOs. Sen. Obama has accepted money from Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron and just about every other major oil company. Just last month, Sen. Obama accepted another $8,400 from ExxonMobil, $12,370 from Chevron and $6,500 from British Petroleum.

This is important, writes Singer, because Obama has just put up an ad in Pennsylvania in which he says, “I’m Barack Obama and I don’t take money from oil companies or lobbyists and I won’t let them block change anymore.”

I’m certain the Obama people are already formulating a response to explain away the presence of these companies in his donor files and why it doesn’t matter, but I want to take a stab at the more general practice of trying to link — and tar — candidates with every single contributor they have.

Obviously, transparency about where a candidate’s money comes from is important, to say the least, for all the reasons I won’t rehearse here. But voters also need to know the context in which the donation was given, and today’s missive from the Clinton campaign doesn’t even really try. Nor should we expect it to. I think that’s why I’m here… Anyway

UPDATE: Some really interesting comments and questions about this post, including responses from those in Hillaryland and McCainworld. I’m headed out the door, but I will be following up. For now, answers for some of the questions: the ad itself is here, a definition of “bundler” can be found here, and, yes, when ANYONE says that Candidate X has gotten money from Company D, they are referring to people who made donations who happen to work at Company D OR to monies given to a candidate from a corporation’s PAC. McCain-Feingold made direct corporate contributions illegal (and, yes, that’s what my McCain correspondent pointed out, among other things)*. A last note: I didn’t mean to take a side on whether Obama “lied” or not, though, by pretty much any standard, his statement is less than straightforward: No one takes money from “companies” anymore, and, if you count employees of companies as representing the company, he’s clearly taken money. He may have meant he hasn’t taken money from oil and gas industry PACs. And, it’s true, Hillary has never claimed to not have taken money from oil companies, so if you’re judging candidates by the standard they hold themselves to, score one for Hillary. (This has been her argument for awhile, obviously.)

* UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Karen thoughtfully reminds me to clarify what McCain-Feingold did w/r/t “direct corporate contributions”:

[corporate contributions have] been illegal for candidates since 1907. McCain-Feingold made it illegal to give them as soft money to parties and leadership PACs, but [those contributions] could never be used directly for a presidential campaign.

She’s right, of course, though the elimination of soft money also got rid of one of the most lethal tools in a corporations’ political arsenal. And, in the context of this discussion, McCain-Feingold also makes it even harder to understand what, exactly. Obama was boasting about in that ad.

First of all, the numbers in the Clinton release — while a tidy sum to many (including me) — are not especially significant amounts in the absurdly grand scheme of contribution things. Traditional energy companies don’t even show up in the top 20 of the industries that have given to Obama during his career — in order to get on that list, a sector would have have to have given him over $600,000. And any single company would have to have given him over $173,000.

Second of all, does Hillary even want to play this game? Catching Obama out on a relatively small donation from Exxon is, I guess, a success of some sort in this tacky tit-for-tat game, but Clinton herself has received over $23,000 from ExxonMobile, $9,350 from Chevron, and $3,750 from BP (maybe more — BP employees seem lax about how they fill in that blank). Oh, and in this cycle? She’s taken $289,000 from the oil and gas industry in general. And there’s the real money: the lobbying sector is the 18th-most generous industry to Hillary (having given $1.4M — lobbyists may be “people too,” they’re also clearly RICH people); she’s the recipient of the third greatest amount from lobbyists to politicians overall from 1989-2004, the second among mortgage bankers and brokers, and the first among hedge funds. These last three listings are especially impressive, given that she’d only been in office for four years. In just the presidential campaign, lobbyists have given her almost a million dollars, compared to the $500,000 they’ve given McCain, and $105,000 they’ve given to Obama.

By comparison, Obama’s lists for his pre-presidential period are positively quaint: He’s third among clergy, third among educators, and second among alternative energy producers. But that money was all donated before he signed to a major label and started playing stadiums.

Once he hit the big time, in the 2007-08 election cycle, he kept the interest of the religious, the educated, and the do-gooders, but also zoomed to the second on the list for donations received by the mortgage industry. Over all cycles, since 1990, Clinton still tops the list, and Obama comes in eighth. To quote St. McCain: “We’re all dirty.”

The third factor may not matter to the extremely zealous watchdogs, but it’s worth making: When institutions like Open Secrets say “Company X gave $Z to Candidate B,” it’s not necessarily the case that a company-wide conspiracy is in play, or even that the donor made the conscious decision, “I will support Candidate B because of her policy on CAFE standards,” or whatever. The totals for a specific business, after all, come from individual donations, while the total for an industry come from PACs and lobbyist in addition to individual donations; the PACs and lobbyists are probably thinking, “I will support Candidate B because blah blah blah,” as they roll around in piles and piles of money, rubbing intended legislation on their nether regions. But, going through the records of Hillary’s donations, a lot of the oil and gas company employees also identified themselves as geologists, and maybe it’s just that I have a soft spot for nerdy types, it’s hard to picture Geologist Joe out in some dusty field, cackling about how his $250 donation will really stick it to those dirty filthy hippies.

Again, it’s not as though we shouldn’t care about where a politician gets his or her money — or that the amount is the only thing that matters (see: Paw, Winkle) but the money has to come from somewhere. At least until everyone decides to accept complete public financing. Then we can just obsess about the independent expenditures and 527s…