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How Obama’s Biggest Donors Get Their Goodies in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE—It is often said that there are two conventions: The convention most of the delegates and media experience—lots of bland receptions and earnest panel discussions on the future of U.S.-Canada relations—and the convention the wealthiest donors experience, full of skybox poshness, private dining rooms, and lavish after-parties.

As it happens, there's a side of the convention that's largely hidden to even the most well-heeled moneymen, a booming cottage industry known as donor maintenance. This is the delicate form of social engineering in which campaign officials monitor the mental state of their biggest donors and labor to keep them in equilibrium. Naturally, this plotting occurs largely behind the donors’ backs; they generally only encounter the end result. But I happened to observe the scheming in its full glory yesterday morning on a couch in the lobby of the Westin.

At the center of the action was a late 30-ish (to my eye) man dressed in gray slacks and a blue-checked shirt—let's call him Ted, though that’s not his real name. Ted had deep bags under his eyes and second-day growth and wielded a thick manila envelope. When distinguished-looking men in blazers greeted him, he would ask how their night had gone and about their plans for the evening. Invariably, they would hem and haw about having so many options to choose from, at which point Ted would stop them short, unfurl a ticket from his envelope and press it into their hands. “This is the best party going on tonight,”he would assure them. (After two or three iterations of this, I asked Ted what gives. “I’m with the campaign,” he offered expansively.)

It was a straight-forward exercise in what you might call “pre-emptive donor maintenance,” in other words—meeting the needs of donors and VIPs before they even realized they had them. In the same way that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a few minutes of pre-emptive maintenance can spare you hours of subsequent ego-massaging.

But it turned out there was a more sophisticated cost-benefit analysis at work—the part of the process the donors rarely see. Over the next hour, a variety of underlings came by to enlist Ted's help in managing their big-shots. Each one prompted a brief discussion of the importance of the person, and how deeply Ted would have to reach into his envelope to impress them. “Is it the gesture, or does it need to be good?” Ted asked when one colleague flagged him down. (Just the gesture, it turns out.) Another came in search of lounge passes for a contingent from Texas, prompting the following colloquy (which I've slightly trimmed):

Colleague: This gets them in the building, this gets them in the lounge. Is there anything better than this?

Ted: Royal is better.

Colleague: Is there food and drink inside?

Ted: Just not in the private lounge, but these are still fine.

Of course, there are only so many needs you can anticipate. However painstaking the planning or exquisite the psychoanalyzing, there will always be VIPs who don't hear about that blowout bash until they're trading war stories the next morning. This is where a second discipline comes in—I'll call it "cleanup"—and Ted had clearly mastered it, too. Lieutenants would turn up in a mild panic, apparently convinced that some great man's reproach had doomed them to a lifetime schlepping luggage. After a few minutes with Ted and his magic goodie bag, the angst abruptly evaporated, the tear ducts went dry. The future was alive again with possibility.

This was never truer than when a trim young man in a polo shirt staggered by, certain that tomorrow would bring disaster. Right away, Ted told him, “I can guarantee we will get whatever they need.” This seemed to put him at ease. “Let's do this,” Ted said after a few more seconds of reflection. “Two suite passes—this is to get in the building with suite passes. Four honored guest passes. For their trouble—these are not great lounges. But you can give it to them and say, ‘I got you lounge passes.’”

Not quite believing his good luck, Polo Shirt pressed on:

Do I deal with you or Rufus tomorrow [presumably Rufus Gifford, the Obama campaign finance director]?

What do you think's going to happen?

I deal with you?

Yes. That's what this is for. [Ted pointed to the envelope.] This is to fix problems.

Fixing—that was exactly what Ted did. He was a guy who delighted in the sheer transactional sport of it. He practically scoffed at problems that were too easy to take care of, and his eyes lit up at the first sign of anguish. For his colleagues, an especially touchy VIP brought indigestion. In Ted, it seemed to inspire respect. “My advice to donors: throw a fit,” he confided to some hangers-on just before I left. “You'll get whatever you want.”

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber