Much of the attention on the record amounts of money in the presidential race this year, including Sen. Barack Obama's announcement on Sunday of his $150 million fundraising haul in September, has focused on the explosion of small donors.
But there has been another proliferation on the national fundraising landscape that had not been fully apparent until the latest campaign finance reports were filed last week – people who have given tens of thousands of dollars at a time to help the candidates.
Enabled by the fine print in campaign finance laws, they have written giant checks which far exceed normal individual contribution limits to candidates. These checks go to joint fundraising committees that benefit the candidates as well as their respective parties.
Many of these large donors come from industries with interests in Washington. A New York Times analysis of donors who wrote checks of $25,000 or more to the candidates' main joint fundraising committees found the biggest portion of money for both candidates came from the securities and investments industry, including executives at firms embroiled in the recent financial crisis like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG.
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The joint fundraising committees have been utilized far more heavily this presidential election than in the past.
Obama's campaign has leaned on wealthy benefactors to contribute up to $33,100 at a time to complement his army of small donors over the Internet. He bypassed public financing for the general election. More than 600 donors contributed $25,000 or more to him in September alone, roughly three times the number who did the same for Sen. John McCain.
And McCain's campaign, which had not disclosed most of these donors until last week, has taken the concept to new levels, encouraging deep-pocketed supporters to write checks of more than $70,000, by adding state parties as beneficiaries of his fundraising.
All told, each candidate has had about 2,000 people give $25,000 or more to his various joint fundraising committees through September.
The donations to these joint fundraising committees have surged this election cycle, as they have already taken in nearly $300 million this year through September, with McCain collecting slightly more than Obama. That compares to just $69 million in 2004.
Campaign finance watchdog groups call it a worrisome trend, arguing that such arrangements bring candidates one step further into the embrace of these supersized donors .
“This is subverting the whole notion of candidate contribution limits,” said Steve Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute.