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Obama Grows More Reliant on Big-Money Contributors

Kirk Wagar, a Florida lawyer who has raised more than $1 million for President Obama’s re-election bid, had his choice of rooms for the Democratic convention at Charlotte’s Ritz-Carlton or Westin hotels and nightly access to hospitality suites off the convention floor.

Barak Obama, Jeffery Katzenberg
Getty Images | CNBC composite
Barak Obama, Jeffery Katzenberg

Jay Snyder, a New York financier who has raised at least $560,000 for Mr. Obama, was entitled to get his picture taken on the podium at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

And Azita Raji, a retired investment banker who has raised over $3 million for Mr. Obama — more than almost anyone else during the last two years — could get pretty much anything that she wanted last week in Charlotte: briefings with senior Obama officials, invitations to post-speech parties, along with “priority booking” at the city’s finest hotels.

In the race for cash, Mr. Obama often praises his millions of grass-roots donors, those die-hards whose $3 or $10 or $75 contributions are as much a symbol of the president’s political identity as they are a source of ready cash. But his campaign’s big-dollar fund-raising has become more dependent than it was four years ago on a smaller number of large-dollar donors and fund-raisers.

All told, Mr. Obama’s top “bundlers” — people who gather checks from friends and business associates — raised or gave at least $200 million for Mr. Obama’s re-election bid and the Democratic National Committee through the end of May, close to half of the total up to that point, according to internal campaign documents obtained by The New York Times.

The documents provide a detailed look into the intricate world of presidential fund-raising, which Mr. Obama and his team have mastered, and donor-stroking, which some supporters complain they have not. The campaign closely monitors its top bundlers, rating them by how much each individual or couple has raised and donated each year going back to 2007.

Officials used that amount, in turn, to offer donor packages of access and entertainment for the convention last week, themed to the location in North Carolina: “OBX” (bumper-sticker shorthand for the Outer Banks) for those raising at least $1 million, down to “Carolina on My Mind” for those who have donated merely $75,800 to Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee, the maximum allowed under federal law.

“It confirms everything we’ve always believed about the role of big money in politics,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that tracks political fund-raising. “The more you give, the more you gather, the more you get.”

Each individual or couple is also assigned a lifetime Obama total. Topping the list is Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood producer, who, along with his fund-raising partner, Andy Spahn, has brought in at least $6.6 million combined for the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, according to the documents.

The top fund-raiser for 2011 and 2012 is Andrew Tobias, a Miami-based author who is treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a major bundler for Mr. Obama among gay donors. Terry McAuliffe, a former party chairman and Bill Clinton loyalist, shot into Mr. Obama’s top bundler ranks this year after he and Mr. Clinton agreed to hold a Virginia fund-raiser for Mr. Obama. He has raised about $2.2 million for Mr. Obama, according to the documents, more than all but a few supporters.

Because not all of Mr. Obama’s bundlers are represented through the end of May, the documents may understate the total that top supporters have raised for Mr. Obama. But even so, they reveal how dependent even Mr. Obama — whose grass-roots fund-raising machine is unrivaled in political history — is on a relative handful of wealthy individuals raising millions of dollars on his behalf, often while having significant business or legal interests before the Obama administration.

Among the top 10 fund-raisers on the list for 2012, for example, are Steve Spinner, a former Department of Energy official who pushed the White House to approve a $535 million loan guarantee for Solyndra, the failed solar power company.

DreamWorks Animation, the studio Mr. Katzenberg leads, is among several in Hollywood that earlier this year were notified of an investigation into whether entertainment companies had made illegal payments to officials in China in connection with their dealings there.

Mitt Romney has fielded an equally formidable high-dollar fund-raising machine this year and could raise as much or more than Mr. Obama during the election cycle. Like the Democrats, Republicans offered big donors an array of perks at their convention, held in Tampa, Fla., last month, including choice hotel access, boat trips and access to Mr. Romney himself.

Mr. Obama already makes public the names of his bundlers, along with ranges for how much they have raised, a practice not required by law. Mr. Romney has declined to release such information, though monthly disclosures filed by his campaign suggest that he is even more dependent than Mr. Obama on big bundlers and donors who have given the legal maximum.

“Our major volunteer fund-raisers, as well as the ranges of contributions they raised, were previously made public because unlike Governor Romney, we disclose them on our Web site,” said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama’s publicly disclosed categories stop at the $500,000-and-up level, however. The internal documents show that at least 60 individuals and couples reside in an even more elite club, having raised more than $1 million for Mr. Obama and the party.

They include Frank White Jr., a technology entrepreneur who has raised $2.3 million for Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign; Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who has raised $2.7 million; Robert Wolf, a former executive at UBS Americas, the banking company, who has raised about $1.3 million; and Reshma Saujani, a lawyer who is running for New York City public advocate next year and is active among young larger donors, who has raised about $1 million.

About 260 of the bundlers did not raise any money for Mr. Obama during his 2008 campaign, according to the document. That reflects the extraordinary effort Mr. Obama made to recruit new fund-raisers for his re-election effort, as former supporters lost enthusiasm or moved on to other pursuits.

But it also reflects the number of former fund-raisers whom Mr. Obama appointed to ambassadorial and other posts, leaving them barred from political activities.

Jo Craven McGinty, Derek Willis, and Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.

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