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Campaign watch: Dinner with Clooney and other overseas fundraising tactics

george clooney

By Flickr user csztova

Who wouldn’t want to have dinner in Geneva with George Clooney?

Hard to imagine anything more glamorous. And that is what the Obama campaign is hoping will be a draw for Americans living overseas with cash to spare. The upcoming event, sponsored by “Americans Abroad for Obama” is looking for an entry price of $20,000 per person, $30,000 per couple.

There are roughly six million American citizens living abroad in 160 different countries. As a group, they would be the 17th most populous state and, with numbers like that, they are increasingly becoming a target by the Presidential contenders looking for financial support. Republican Mitt Romney’s recent visit to London, Israel and Poland was part political – to burnish his foreign policy credentials – and part financial. Fund-raisers were held in London and Jerusalem, with the Israel visit adding a quick $1 million to the Romney effort. For reporters covering campaign finance, it’s also time to look abroad.

Overseas fund-raising traces its roots to Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who held a London fund-raiser in 2007. When other politicians saw that new wellspring of campaign cash, they quickly followed. In 2008, John McCain held a fund-raiser at Spencer House, the St. James Place home that was built (from 1756 to 1766) by the first Earl Spencer, an ancestor of Diana, the late Princess of Wales. The house is described as “one of the most ambitious aristocratic town houses ever built in London.” In other words, the perfect place to encourage donors to write big checks.

London also saw Michelle Obama as the main attraction at a London landmark – the appropriately named Landmark London Hotel. At the 2007 event, Democratic bundlers who brought in donations of $23,000 or more were invited to a private reception with the future First Lady. This was followed in 2008 by a Notting Hill gathering organized by Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert Murdoch, on behalf of the Obama campaign. Those invited included such high-profile American expats as Gwyneth Paltrow.

Overseas events are popular ways of making American expats feel connected to the political campaign. Even more, expats often tend to be high wage earners, working in finance or for multi-national corporations, just the kind of voters who have money to donate.

It appears these expats are not shy about opening their wallets. In the 2010 presidential race, nearly $7 million was raised by Americans abroad – $5.4 million for Democrats and $1.5 million for Republicans. Figures compiled by Sarah Starkweather of the University of Liverpool show a steady increase in overseas donations, with the largest amount coming from Americans in Europe. By contrast, in the 2004 Presidential election, both parties raised less than $1 million combined from overseas donors.

obama london

By Flickr user Charles McCain

Through May 2012, Democrats raised $3.1 million abroad compared to $1.3 million for Republicans, according to the Boston Globe. That, however, was before Romney’s latest haul.

Federal law allows only U.S. citizens and green card holders to contribute to political campaigns. Foreign nationals who are Democratic or Republican sympathizers cannot participate in these events, nor offer their time and services. That would be considered an “in-kind” campaign contribution and is prohibited. Generally, many of the invitations to these events request that American passports be shown at the door.

No candidate wants to be accused of accepting foreign money, especially in light of the “Chinese money” scandal that erupted a decade ago, resulting in civil penalties and a lot of headaches for the Democratic National Committee.

There are pitfalls, however, as Romney learned. One of the co-hosts of his London event was scheduled to be Robert Diamond, who was forced to step down as chief executive of Barclay’s bank after the bank settle charges it had manipulated a key interest rate. Diamond also stepped down from hosting the Romney event.

Still, where there is money, politicians will follow. Two of Romney’s sons have held fund-raisers in Hong Kong. Nine of Obama’s top bundlers are American expats – as a group, they have raised $2 million. And the Obama campaign has sent surrogates to fund-raisers in Shanghai, Paris and London. For instance, in early July, Obama sent former Navy secretary Richard Danzig to host a $750 ticket fund-raiser in Paris.

Mr. Danzig may be a draw. But when it comes to serious fund-raising, there is nothing like the star power of George Clooney.

About the Author

Leslie Wayne is an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University and New York University. She's a former award-winning business reporter at The New York Times where she covered Wall Street, politics, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and the aerospace and military industries. Wayne was selected as the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Business Journalism at Arizona State University in 2010.

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