Running for president is very, very expensive. And the cost keeps going up. As the candidates chase after more and more cash, they're turning to super fundraisers, known as "bundlers," for help. Bundlers organize and collect campaign contributions from other donors. The checks are often delivered to the campaign in a bundle — hence, the name. Sometimes bundlers are called raisers, as in "fundraisers." That distinguishes them from writers of checks.
As campaigns gobble up ever more cash, bundlers rank high in the power structure of American politics.
Bundlers are a hot commodity because campaign spending has outstripped the traditional ways of raising money. Under federal law, an individual can give a candidate up to $2,300 for the primary and another $2,300 for the general election. (The limit rises yearly with inflation.) For 2008, most of the top-tier presidential candidates have budgets of around $500 million. So even if all the donors "max out," each candidate would need to find some 220,000 wealthy supporters.
That mission is beyond reach of even a high-tech, fully-staffed campaign. So the campaign builds networks of bundlers to solicit their friends and colleagues. Bundlers work phones and stage events. Sometimes they get checks; sometimes they recruit other bundlers. All of the money counts toward the original bundler's tally at campaign headquarters.
And yes, the campaigns do keep track. In 1999, President Bush's campaign organized the "Pioneers," who pledged to raise $100,000 each. The 2004 Bush campaign upped the ante: it added $200,000 "Rangers." There were also "Super Rangers," who raised an additional $50,000 for the Republican National Committee. Pioneers and Rangers could buy souvenir pins and cufflinks, and they were invited to presidential cook-outs.
Many of them also got presidential appointments, government contracts, opportunities to influence agency decisions, and other favors.
This year, Hillary Clinton's $100,000 bundlers are dubbed "HillRaisers." Republican Sen. John McCain has "McCain 100s" and "McCain 200s." Republican Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and devoted Yankees fan, has "All-American Sluggers" at $50,000 and "All-American Team Captains" at $1 million.
But there are three major problems with bundling:
Some bundlers over-promise and under-deliver. It's a common problem and a big frustration for campaign pros.
Campaigns also get nervous as the bundler networks expand ever outward. Pretty soon, money is coming in from raisers and writers that the campaign might not really know. It's a breeding ground for scandal.
And all of the money is flowing in secret. Contributions eventually get disclosed, but bundling never has. A lobby-reform law signed today by President Bush will require Washington lobbyists to report their fundraising activities every six months. But most bundlers won't be affected. Beyond that, there's only an eight-year tradition of presidential candidates' disclosing their bundlers' names.