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Romney, Obama mine funds overseas

Expatriates pose ever-larger source

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 17, 2012
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WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney and President Obama are stepping up efforts to get campaign donations from Americans living half a world away, a new twist in a rapidly shifting and intensely competitive campaign finance environment.

Romney has reportedly sent two of his sons to Hong Kong to raise money, and is planning another round of fund-raising in London while he is there for the Olympics. Obama’s surrogates held a fund-raiser at a Shanghai hotel last Wednesday and next month will dispatch actor George Clooney to Geneva to collect donations.

“As campaign fund-raising has become more intense and candidates seek dollars wherever they can find them, conducting fund-raisers overseas has become part of the presidential fund-raising package,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor and campaign finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

“We’re going to see more fund-raising done overseas this time than we ever have in the past,” he added.

At this point, Obama has a sizable edge over the former Massachusetts governor in attracting donations from abroad, but Romney is planning several high-dollar fund-raisers while abroad later this month.

A variety of factors are driving the bid for overseas donations. With businesses growing in international hubs like London and Hong Kong, there are more potential donors living abroad.

But the primary force is that with candidates backing out of the public financing system — which puts limits on the amount they can raise in exchange for government funding — there is an insatiable appetite for raising money, no matter where it comes from.

Ben LaBolt, a top spokesman for the Obama campaign, did a teleconference with American students studying in Cairo several weeks ago. The recommended donation was $50 per person.

The Obama campaign’s recent fund-raiser in Shanghai was at a hotel bar that claims to have a “sexy and sophisticated rooftop champagne lounge.” On Thursday night there was a fund-raiser in Paris, where attendees paid $750 to meet with featured guest Richard Danzig, former Navy secretary and a member of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

Obama himself has not held any fund-raisers abroad, instead relying on top surrogates or advisers.

Romney, though, has been far more active in seeking overseas cash. He traveled to London last year during the primary campaign, at a time when many of his Republican rivals were organizing for the Iowa Straw Poll.

Romney’s return to London this month comes on the eve of the Olympic Games. He is planning two separate fund-raising events hosted by a variety of banking industry officials.

The events involve a reception — at a cost of $2,500 per person — and a high-dollar “private dinner with Governor Mitt Romney” that will cost from $25,000 to $75,000 per person. Both events will be held at a location in central London that has not yet been named, according to copies of the invitations obtained by the Globe.

Romney also planned to raise money while he is in Jerusalem for a two-day trip following the Olympics. But the $50,000-per-person fund-raiser, scheduled for July 29, appears to have been scrapped because it is Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning and fasting. According to a tweet by Natasha Mozgovaya, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the campaign was not holding the fund-raiser on that day and was “aware of the sensitivity of that date.”

Romney has significant ground to make up in the battle for overseas funds. So far, Obama alone and through his joint committee with the Democratic National Committee has raised $3.1 million abroad, according to a Globe analysis of federal campaign finance reports. Romney alone and with his joint committee with the Republican National Committee has raised $1.3 million.

The Globe analysis included only donations that had an overseas address listed. It did not include donors who may have listed the address of their US home. It is not known how many such donors there are.

Although donations from Americans living abroad have made up a sliver of overall contributions, they have grown at a much faster rate, according to Sarah Starkweather, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool who wrote a 2010 paper analyzing the amounts that American candidates raised abroad from the 1992 elections to those in 2008.

Her study found that the vast majority of donations — more than 70 percent — came from Europe, compared with 18 percent in the Asia-Pacific region, 10 percent in the Americas, and less than 1 percent in Africa.

Only American citizens or US green card holders are allowed to contribute to a presidential campaign.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, became the first to raise funds abroad in September 2007, also on a trip to London. Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton were also featured at fund-raisers that year, raising money for their spouses. Obama, as a senator in 2008, attended a fund-raiser held at the Notting Hill home of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth.

Fund-raising abroad had been fairly rare up until that point, but Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, shattered all previous records for their parties and raised a total of roughly $6.9 million abroad, according to Starkweather’s figures. Romney and Obama, who combined have raised $4.4 million, appear on course to break the 2008 record.

The Federal Election Commission has written several letters reminding the campaigns that they are not allowed to accept money from foreign nationals.

“Our committee has safeguards in place to ensure that all contributions are made by eligible donors only,” Romney campaign treasurer Darrell Crate responded earlier this year.

Colby College’s Corrado sees the push for money from overseas as directly linked to candidates’ abandonment of public campaign financing.

“What’s driving it is fairly simple: Now in the post-public funding spending era, candidates are trying to raise as much as possible, and have recognized they can raise significant amounts with a fund-raising trip overseas,” Corrado said.

“If you think back maybe a decade ago, nominees would make a European or foreign trip to highlight their foreign policy credentials,” Corrado said. “It wasn’t typical to combine fund-raising with those trips. That’s a good indication that the demand for dollars has made them take every opportunity they can to raise money.”

Matt Viser can be reached at

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