Before the first Republican presidential debate in August, Julian H. Gingold coached Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin on Chinese currency manipulation and the nuances of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Gingold, who worked on trade issues for President Ronald Reagan, even provided a television-ready zinger that could be deployed against Donald Trump during the debate.
“I mentioned that Trump had dinner at the 21 Club in New York with Oliver Stone,” Gingold said, referring to the Oscar-winning filmmaker, who is supporting Bernie Sanders in the presidential race. “The message would get across that he had dinner with a leftist — what sort of conservative are you?”
Gingold is not a campaign strategist or adviser. He is a wealth manager based in New York and a Walker “bundler,” who contributed the maximum amount allowed under federal law to the campaign and then solicited donations from friends.
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In an election cycle that is already on track to break spending records, and with few limits on contributions to super PACs and other outside groups, big donors have never been more important. No longer satisfied with sitting on the sidelines and writing big checks, many of them are eager to play larger roles in the campaigns.
They expect their views to be heard quickly and their concerns taken seriously, sometimes creating headaches and potential awkwardness for the campaigns and super PACs, which must tend to the contributors and their seemingly endless suggestions and questions.
On one hand, the campaigns and their affiliated groups rely on the financial support and appreciate the occasional insights that come from people who have been successful in other fields.
On the other hand, they find themselves devoting more and more time to stroking donors’ egos, weighing their ideas and soothing supporters whose panicked phone calls can be prompted by anything from an alarming tweet to a small stumble on a morning show.
“Donors are demanding a lot these days, man, and they want answers and they want results, and a lot of them hit the panic button a lot,” said Theresa Kostrzewa, a Republican lobbyist and donor based in North Carolina, who is supporting former governor Jeb Bush of Florida. “This is a new day. Donors consider a contribution like, ‘Well, wait, I just invested in you. Now I need to have my say; you need to answer to me.’ ”
Referring to the maximum direct donation to a candidate that the Federal Election Commission allows, she described the sentiment as: “I gave $2,700. I’m entitled to 2,700 opinions.”
Of course, perks for top supporters are nothing new, and donors have long been treated to special dinners, photos with the candidate and even invitations to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom. But the speed and volume of the modern news cycle have created a landscape in which donors are constantly saturated with information — and the campaigns and super PACS, in turn, are increasingly expected to respond.
Stanley S. Hubbard, the media mogul based in Minnesota, who supported Walker, said he had offered a piece of advice after an interview in which Walker discussed his views about abortion and gay marriage. “I suggested to him that he stay out of social issues,” Hubbard said. “I told him nothing is going to happen, whether you like abortion or not — that’s your own belief, but don’t talk about that.”
Just before Walker dropped out of the presidential contest last week, Hubbard was trying to reach him to suggest that he get more media training.
Anthony Scaramucci, a New York investor who supported Walker, agreed that the news media’s coverage of politics — on television (especially the morning shows) and in conservative publications — played a big role in driving donor angst.
“It’s one part punditry, it’s one part newspaper articles, and it’s one part the sound bites and messaging from the candidate,” he said. “I also think gaffes have a big role.”
Jonathan Burkan, a financial services executive who was supporting Walker, said he received his campaign news from multiple media sources, in what he calls the CIA model. “I look at a bunch of things, and if they’re all saying the same thing, that concerns me,” he said. “That makes me nervous.”
And there are the polls, perhaps most critical in stirring up donor anxieties. “It’s all numbers,” said Eric Anton, a New York real estate executive who was a Walker bundler. “A lot of analytical banker types are donors, so they track that like they track the stock market.”
As handling concerns from contributors has become a crucial job for campaigns and super PACs, many have devoted at least one person, in part, to donor maintenance. Austin Barbour, a senior adviser to the super PAC that supported former governor Rick Perry of Texas, said he would regularly receive a flurry of calls from worried donors — “What’s the plan? What are you putting on TV? Why are you doing that? Why are you not saying this?”
But Barbour, who is now joining Bush’s campaign, said he was happy to field the complaints: “If they wanted to talk to me for an hour, I’d talk to them for an hour. They were the ones who were funding what we were doing, so goodness gracious, the least thing I could do is answer whatever questions they had.”
In addition to the more traditional donor maintenance – like holding regular conference calls between the donors and top campaign officials and sending thank-you notes – campaigns are finding innovative ways to make donors feel involved.
The campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has provided his financial backers with a password-protected mobile app that provides updates on the candidate, details of his schedule and even helpful talking points.
“So if someone asks me a question – ‘What’s Marco’s policy on ISIS?' – if I didn’t know it offhand or feel comfortable with it, I could flip it up and have an answer,” said Tom Tellefsen, a California-based real estate developer who is supporting Rubio.
Tellefsen, who was on Mitt Romney’s 2012 finance team, said he had offered several suggestions to both Romney and Rubio – some of a “positive nature” and some of a “critique nature.” The campaigns responded to some, he said, and ignored others.
Many donors simply want to be heard, Tellefsen said. He has suggested that Rubio’s campaign create a formal system for dealing with donor concerns. Tellefsen said Rubio himself had sometimes responded with “at least a quick text message or email.”
For the campaigns and super PACs, Barbour said, the payoff for tending to the contributors is worth the effort.
“They don’t do campaigns every day, so the ups and downs of campaigns seem very foreign,” he said. “It’s just a lot of reassuring with them.”