When it comes to political fund-raising, rich people are great. People who know a lot of rich people are even better.
Individual donors may write the checks, but a lot of influence and power accrues to the intermediaries who collect the money. Known as “bundlers,” they are the financial backbone of many modern campaigns.
“These are essentially fund-raisers who aren’t on the payroll,” said Sarah Bryner, research director of the campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.
And because campaigns are not legally required to identify them, their influence can be hidden from the public.
The perennial issue of money in politics has received renewed scrutiny in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, with candidates sparring over the influence of big donors. In last week’s debate, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., for a private, ritzy fund-raiser held in a wine cave. Buttigieg fired back at Warren, who had, prior to her presidential run, recruited some of the same big donors she now criticizes.
The top candidates have taken distinct fund-raising approaches, with former Vice President Joe Biden relying primarily on traditional networks of big-dollar donors, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) eschewing fund-raisers and building massive networks of small-dollar online donors, and Buttigieg doing both but leaning more on big donors.
Warren, in particular, has gone after her rivals for their reliance on major donors, pointing to the potential for conflicts of interest and saying candidates should not be beholden to the already powerful and wealthy.
There’s no requirement that campaigns identify their bundlers, despite their importance and influence. Bundlers often receive ambassadorships and other political appointments, as well as access to candidates and policy-making.
“They’re being very strategic because it’s a way to bolster their reputation,” Robin Kolodny, chair of Temple University’s political science department, said of bundlers. “Are people who try to get close to administrations involved in some kind of quid pro quo? The answer is yes. And that’s exactly what happens when you make a system where everything is based on private money.”
Buttigieg, who first disclosed some of his bundlers in April, released an updated list this month. Biden’s campaign said it would do the same, but didn’t say when.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) disclosed her bundlers before she dropped out of the race, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, struggling to raise money and gain in the polls, released his list of bundlers last week.
Alan Kessler has considered himself a political fund-raiser since 1988, when he worked on then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore’s presidential campaign. In the years since, Kessler, a top lawyer at Duane Morris in Philadelphia, has amassed a wide network of Democratic donors.
“Not until recently have they termed them ‘bundlers,’” Kessler said. “But it’s not different from what’s been done from the beginning of time — those who not just write checks but solicit people to make contributions at the presidential level.”
A bundler isn’t legally defined except in the case of lobbyists, but the generally accepted understanding is that it’s a person credited with collecting donations from others, often by hosting fund-raising events.
They’re called upon in part because of the campaign finance limits all donors must adhere to: Individuals can give up to only $2,800 to a candidate in a federal election, so amassing the tens of millions of dollars necessary to run a competitive campaign means pulling in many donors.
A single candidate, even with paid campaign staff, could spend hours every day on the phone and at events meeting donors — many do — and still never reach enough people to get the necessary cash.
Bundlers aren’t necessarily the people with the most money — but rather the widest networks and the will to put them to work.
“I don’t have a spare $2,800 to throw around myself,” said Neil Makhija, 33, a public interest lawyer from Philadelphia who organized several fund-raisers for candidates in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles and was named on Harris’ list of bundlers. “But my political involvement has grown from knocking on thousands of doors for Barack Obama, to running myself for the state house in 2016, to now, asking my supporters to stay engaged and contribute to great candidates.”
Not every candidate can emulate Sanders’ online fund-raising machine, Makhija said: “That is true, especially for less glamorous races at the state and municipal level.”
Bundlers essentially have the roles of local ward leaders in classic political machines, Kolodny said. A ward leader has only a single vote, but has power because of the ability to influence family, friends, and neighbors.
Similarly, bundlers can “max out” personally only once, but their power comes from the ability to marshal networks of other donors.
The arrangement can, at times, help the person who gathers the harvest, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
“Say the campaign knows that John Smith got them $40,000 in hard money checks — so then that gives the bundler a little bit more access,” he said.
In addition, the bundler can act almost as a concierge for the donors themselves.
“The bundler can call and say, ‘I want you to do this for my friend Jim Smith,’ and Jim Smith is his friend because he gave him a check when he was bundling,” Rendell said.
Rendell, who backs Biden, described himself as “one of the most prolific fund-raisers in the state,” but doesn’t count himself a bundler, because he doesn’t track how much he brings in for campaigns.
He decried the Democratic finger-pointing over who is accepting big donations, noting that Republican candidates haven’t always disclosed bundlers in the past, or, for the most part, opened fund-raisers to the media. (George W. Bush and Mitt Romney identified their bundlers, but Donald Trump broke with bipartisan tradition in 2016 and is again not identifying them for 2020.)
Bundler disclosures follow no specific rules: Buttigieg and Harris identified bundlers collecting at least $25,000, while Booker named those who collected at least $50,000. Names are not independently verified and are sometimes added or removed without notice, Bryner said. Buttigieg’s latest list left off 20 major fund-raisers.
“I see the same names over and over again," Bryner said. “And this cycle you actually see the same names on multiple lists for active candidates, which is weird, but it’s about the relationship, not necessarily about the ideological consistency.”