Friday, March 20, 2009

When Is a Campaign Contribution Not a Campaign Contribution? When It’s a Bonus.

It’s fun to watch the birth of a meme. I don’t know if it began with this essay by Dan Spencer at, but his was one of the earlier ones, at least. Spencer has checked out, a collection of campaign data including breakdowns of the 2008 presidential race, and announced this gleaned fact:

Senator Barack Obama received a $101,332 bonus from American International Group in the form of political contributions according to The two biggest Congressional recipients of bonuses from the A.I.G. are - Senators Chris Dodd and Senator Barack Obama.

He then goes on to call these contributions “bonuses” and wonders if, given Obama’s outrage at bonuses for AIG executives, he’ll be returning his own bonus.

The issue has since ben raised elsewhere, and even ABC News ran a similar story in its Politics section that, in some feint at balance, also mentioned how much Senator John McCain got in AIG contributions before turning back to Obama. Mysteriously, the ABC story didn’t bother to link directly to its sources, or even provide a link to, the Center for Responsive Politics’ site that seems to be the original source of this information.

Which is odd, because it doesn’t take long before this scandalous little fact turns out to be a fairly thin slice of the big picture. And after a little poking around, the thin slice apears to get almost transparent.

First of all, you can only search their database by donor or by donor’s employer. For what little effort I’ve put into it, there doesn’t seem to be a way to differentiate between donations from individuals who happened to be employed by AIG and donations resulting from a corporate effort by AIG or its subsidiaries. To the contrary, OpenSecrets makes clear that is does not have any data that would distinguish one type of giving from the other. In truth, neither Spencer nor anyone who has repeated his story has any way of knowing how much of that $101,322 was from any direct effort by AIG to influence an Obama administration’s treatment of it.

But there are other, more detailed slices of this pie that Spencer doesn’t care to mention. While searching by supporter’s employer doesn’t seem to clearly state whether a set of contributions came from a party representing a specific interest, OpenSecrets has another category that might: Bundlers. They are, apparently, “people with friends in high places who, after bumping against personal contribution limits, turn to those friends, associates, and, well, anyone who's willing to give, and deliver the checks to the candidate in one big "bundle."

So Bundlers might be even more indicative of who was getting contributions from interest groups than Employer turned out to be. Because clearly if I was going to seek out money for my candidate, I’d seek it from people who held views in common with mine. They might be creditors of the same company or on the same board of directors – nevertheless, they would probably have more in common, as a group, than would people with the same employer.

And guess what: when we look at campaign contributions by bundlers, Barack Obama raised $63,200,000 of his $745,000,000 total – or less than ten percent – from bundlers. John McCain, on the other hand, raised $207,200,000 out of a total of $368,000,000, or fifty-six percent, of his campaign contributions from bundlers. When John McCain outraised Barack Obama from special interests by a ratio of six to one, it makes it appear that the $101,332 from AIG employees is a fig leaf hacked out by the Republicans because they simply have nothing else to use to stall President Obama’s legislative agenda.

I’m frankly not surprised that Mr. Spencer’s allegations turn out to be nothing more than a narrow interpretation through a particular statistical prism. Beginning with Joe McCarthy’s lists of known communists in the US government and culminating in their current redefinition of socialism as a tax rate 30 percentage points below the one they just approved, House Republicans have often chosen a strategy of slander over rigorous analysis as a measure of success. This latest episode is just more evidence that they are wise to do so.

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