Hail to the Fundraiser in Chief: The Evolution of Presidential Fundraising Travel, 1977-2004

Article excerpt

On June 21, 2001, President George W. Bush flew to Birmingham, Alabama, where he gave a speech at Oak Mountain State Park. He discussed his administration's support for environmental conservation programs, his efforts to pass what would become the No Child Left Behind Act, and the benefits of the recently passed tax cuts. During his speech, Bush declared, "It's an honor to be traveling back to Alabama today with Jeff Sessions. I'm going to spend a little time this evening touting his cause." Indeed, that evening, Bush headlined a fundraiser for Senator Sessions at the Jefferson Convention Complex before boarding Air Force One and heading to his ranch in Crawford, Texas (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States 2001).

A presidential journey such as this one has become a common occurrence. In recent years, presidents have devoted increasing amounts of their time, which is perhaps their scarcest resource, to the task of raising funds to advance their own political interests and those of their party. Many observers have decried this trend as part of what has been dubbed a permanent campaign for the presidency, in which little distinction now remains between campaigning and governing (Ornstein and Mann 2000).

How do we empirically evaluate whether and to what extent the permanent campaign exists? If, following the logic that David Mayhew (1974) applies to members of Congress, we assume that presidents are single-minded seekers of reelection, strategic presidents as rational actors would work to accumulate the financial resources that would bolster both their own electoral fortunes and those of their co-partisans. Approaching politics with such a worldview, it would be natural for the president to act as the fundraiser in chief.

This essay systematically examines the dynamics of presidential fundraising travel from 1977 to 2004 in order to test hypotheses about which factors are related to where presidents go to raise funds from their supporters, how fundraising travel fits into the larger picture of presidential travel, and the evolution of these dynamics over time. Much research on fundraising is based on data from the Federal Election Commission that detail contributions to candidates, political parties, and political action groups, and focuses on the effect of political contributions on the policy process. I have constructed a database of presidential travel and fundraising events to look at the other side of the coin--what do political actors, in this case presidents, do in search of political funds, and how does this relate to other patterns of presidential travel? What do these trends reveal about the evolving nature of the presidency?

The next section of this study reviews relevant literature on the permanent campaign and presidential fundraising. I then discuss the data set built for this study and the hypotheses that structure the analysis, which then follows. The conclusion highlights the evolving nature of presidential fundraising, the factors that distinguish it from other presidential public activity, and the normative implications of this study.

Presidential Fundraising and the Permanent Campaign

This study builds on scholarship that has focused on both the concept of a permanent campaign and the dynamics of political fundraising. First, in spite of the conventional wisdom that presidents are actively concerned with their own electoral fortunes, research on the presidency rarely addresses campaigns, and the literature on campaigns rarely looks at what presidents do throughout their terms to advance their own reelection and that of their fellow party members. In one example, Samuel Kernell explained the decision to study travel trends only over a president's first three years in office by declaring that "[t]o eliminate public activities inspired by concerns of reelection rather than governing, only the first three years have been tabulated" (1997, 113). …