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Bill Clinton: Hillary's Rainmaker

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This story was produced in collaboration with WNYC.

Click here to listen to listen to story reporters and researchers, along with OffTheBus Project Director Amanda Michel, discuss the story behind this story with WNYC's Brian Lehrer.

Written by Daniel Nichanian
With Additional reporting by Ethan Hova

A list of all contributors follows at the conclusion of this piece.

Pitchman Bill Clinton's e-mail promised contributors to his wife's campaign a chance to watch the Oct. 30 debate with him: "You, me, a TV, and a bowl of chips." Within five days, Hillary pulled in $170,000 in chunks of $200 and less, more than three times what she raised in the preceding five days. "Oh, we had a blast," David Monterosso, one of three chosen to watch the debate told Hillary, in a telephone call videotaped by the campaign. "And I made sure your husband ate some carrots."

In a similar ploy, a "Let's Do Lunch" e-mail earlier in September offered a select few a meal with the New York senator. Her offer, made during a slower time in the fundraising cycle, didn't match the money brought in by her husband, though a comparison of the five-day periods before and after shows a significant spike in small donations, from $23,000 to $121,000.

The campaign's decision to send out Bill's e-mail during the last days of the third quarter, when campaigns trot out their biggest fish, underscores that Bill is, in many ways, as powerful - and sometimes, more so - than Hillary on the campaign trail. Whether he would be an asset or a burden to his wife's campaign provoked talk at the start of the 2008 campaign. But with President Bush's deepening problems making the memories of the 1990s appear rosier than ever, the former First Lady's edge can be tied in very measurable ways to her husband's own popularity.

In a joint project by WNYC and OffTheBus, a team of researchers examined recent Federal Election Commission filings, traced connections of top Hillary backers to the Clinton Administration, and reviewed the minutia of Bill Clinton's schedule. They uncovered the unprecedented benefits of a former first lady tapping into her husband's connections, though the enthusiasm she generates among the Democratic base is so pronounced that much of it can only be attributed to her own appeal.

The wannabe First Man's presence on the campaign trail netted significant boosts in media coverage and in fundraising, but his value extends well beyond his direct campaigning. In fact, the roots of Hillary's campaign go deep in the electoral and fundraising machine the Clintons built in the 1990s, with support the power-couple enjoyed then carrying over to Hillary's presidential effort. Neither the Clinton campaign nor the Clinton Global Initiative answered our queries seeking their responses to this piece.

The ex-president's role in rallying supporters around his wife reveals a carefully scripted strategy. A look at his schedule in a brief stretch of September illustrates the campaign's masterful use of him. Bill had just launched the promotional tour for his new book, "Giving." As a guest on Oprah Winfrey's television show on Sept. 4, he professed that he was "far removed" from the campaign trail even though, of course, he was right in the middle of it.

Bill followed appearances on Oprah, David Letterman's Late Show and Matt Lauer's Today Show with book signings held across the country. These events, widely covered by the local media and attracting numerous fans, generated free publicity and attention for Hillary's candidacy.

The media's coverage primed audiences to Hillary's campaign themes in a remarkable display of coordination between Bill's movements and her campaign. On Sept. 17, the New York senator unveiled her healthcare plan in Des Moines, Iowa. And in events throughout the country, Bill Clinton emphasized health issues, in a show of the campaign's disciplined message delivery. In Denver on the same day, Bill Clinton addressed the Aurora Economic Development Council and focused the end of his talk on healthcare. On Sept. 19, while in California, he held a joint appearance with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation because of the Clinton Foundation's focus on good eating for children - a theme he also promoted later in the month on the "Rachel Ray Show."

His September book tour produced opportunities to raise money for his wife at almost every stop. In a span of the nine days, from Sept. 10-18, he held eight fundraisers without Hillary in six different states. He, for instance, followed up a campaign stop on Sept. 13 in Austin with a promotional event there the next day.

The former president often holds such solo fundraisers. He is a high-profile figure in his own right who many donors want to interact with - perhaps even more so than with the candidate - and the two Clintons can divide up their time to take advantage of their varying appeal. This is proving particularly useful this fall. As the election nears, candidates must devote more time to the campaign trail and less to fundraising, but Hillary can send her equally popular ambassador on the social circuit, giving her a distinct advantage over her opponents.

An analysis of the campaign's third quarter FEC filings shows the boosts in donations that pile in from regions visited by Bill. On Aug. 27, he hosted a fundraiser on behalf of Hillary Clinton in Albany, New York. People familiar with the fundraising process say it usually takes eight to 14 days for a check to clear after a fundraiser, so that any boost hits two weeks after an event. The effect of Bill Clinton's trip to Albany would be felt in the week of Sept. 9. And indeed, the campaign raised $44,965 within the Albany city limits in that week. The sum represents a major increase from the $1,141 that made its way to the campaign's coffers the week of the fundraiser, as well as from the $10,545 raised the week of Sept. 2. And the week of September 16 saw the fundraising total fall back to $11,419, confirming that the 450 percent increase in campaign donations felt around Sept. 9 was an isolated boost that had much to do with Bill Clinton's presence.

Average donations received.
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Andrea Marcus / Nisha Jani

Total donations received.
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Andrea Marcus / Nisha Jani

Amounts received by HRC by week.
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Steve Greenberg

Bill's solo events have typically been smaller than the larger functions that the Clintons both attend or that Hillary headlines by herself - which also drives up the entrance fee. Dual fundraisers on Aug. 3 in the Hamptons on Long Island revealed this contrast. Former White House aide Morris Reid hosted a fundraising party; both Clintons were supposed to attend, though Hillary was held in Washington for a Senate vote at the last minute; admission was $250 a person. Meanwhile, Bill headlined a dinner organized by Dottie Herman, the CEO of Prudential Douglas Elliman; guests ponied up $2,000 each to be let into what Herman described as an "intimate" evening. The evening's take: about $200,000 for the campaign.

Private parties with Bill Clinton as guest are often hosted by people who have long connections with the former president. Mike Driver, who organized a fundraiser at his house in Boulder, Colorado on the Sept. 17 was a donor to the Clintons in the 1990s and stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom during Bill's presidency.

Bill Clinton's presence makes a difference on the campaign trail, but some of the most important benefits he showers on Hillary's candidacy are more indirect, and they reveal the loyalty many Democrats - both high-profile figures and typical voters - feel towards the Clintons. Whether it be through repeat endorsements, transfer of core constituencies or the fidelity of Bill Clinton's fundraisers, much of Hillary Clinton's campaign is rooted in her husband's political machine.

Many polls show the American public's nostalgia for the 1990s, with the perception of Bill Clinton's presidency benefiting from comparisons with his increasingly unpopular successor. Though many pundits had predicted Bill would prove to be a distraction to his wife's campaign, 60 percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post poll conducted at the end of September said they would be comfortable with the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House.

The fact that Clinton has been the only Democratic president in 27 years ensures his popularity with his party's base, allowing Hillary to ground at least part of her argument on the need to replicate the model of the 1990s. Who better than she can get America back to the peace and prosperity it enjoyed in the 1990s? This goes a long way towards explaining why the core groups of the Democratic coalition - African-Americans, low-income voters, and women - are the most staunchly pro-Hillary.

The correlation is striking between Bill's popularity among certain subgroups and Hillary's strength today. A Pew poll of the Democratic primary taken October 17-23 has Hillary leading Barack Obama 51 percent to 22 percent among low-income voters and 51 percent to 19 percent among those with a high school diploma or less. Her lead dwindles to five points among college graduates and to 16 points among the highest income group. A 1992 poll released by Pew of the Democratic primary found similar trends, with Bill Clinton demolishing his main rival Paul Tsongas among the least educated, but trailing him massively among college graduates.

It is Hillary's support among African-Americans, however, that could be the most durable legacy of the 1990s. In the 1992 pew poll, Bill Clinton crushed Tsongas among black voters 49 percent to 20 percent. Author Toni Morrison soon confirmed Clinton's uncommon popularity among African-Americans by calling him "the first black president."

Today, Clinton is holding on to a steady lead among this important constituency of the Democratic Party; the October Pew poll had her ahead 49 percent to 37 percent, a striking result given the historic nature of Obama's candidacy. Clinton's holding on to high levels of support among black voters even as Obama is stepping up his appeal to African-Americans.

Paula Baker, a professor of history at Ohio State University, confirmed that Bill's popularity among blacks is crucial. "Bill Clinton's largest impact on Hillary Clinton's campaign has been in having him out campaigning, and especially in boosting her cause among African American voters," she said. "That, as the commercial says, has been priceless."

Hillary's last name drew in major endorsements, with Bill Clinton often pressing his former backers to rally around his wife's campaign. He is reported to have influenced his Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin to support Hillary despite early misgivings. But perhaps the most emblematic example of Bill's influence is to be found in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' endorsement of Hillary shortly after the raucous October 30 Philadelphia debate. Gerry McEntee, the union's president, has long been an ally of Bill Clinton's. Newsweek's Howard Fineman reported that the former president made a personal plea to McEntee to ensure Hillary would get the union's support.

In an unusually strong response to an endorsement of another candidate, Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe vented his frustration at the frontrunner's relying on her spouse's connection: "We understand that Gerry McEntee and Bill Clinton have a long and close relationship so the push for a Clinton endorsement is no surprise."

The Clintons maintained their domination of the Democratic machine after their departure from the White House in 2001 - mostly through Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2001 to 2005 and one of the Clintons' closest allies. A power struggle erupted in 2004 between the John Kerry and Clinton camps; in an attempt to wrest control of the party away from the 1990s establishment, Kerry reportedly attempted to push McAuliffe to the side to take charge of the party.

Kerry must have felt in quite a bind, as the Clintons made their influence known well beyond the head of the DNC. One of Hillary's most reliable friends, Harold Ickes, was a key figure of the party; the intellectual center of the Democratic Party was shifting to the newly created Center for American Progress (CAP), run by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta.

While Hillary's inner circle is dominated by her long-time loyalists such as her campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, key policy advisors and leading fundraisers are veterans of Bill Clinton's Administration and campaigns. Many Clinton Cabinet members endorsed Hillary, most notably Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who often speaks on behalf of the candidate. Secretary of Defense William Perry and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala were other high-profile gets; all three have donated the maximum $4,600 to the campaign.

This continuity is also evident in the roster of White House employees supporting the former First Lady. Out of 153 staffers from 1990s, 36 have donated to Hillary's campaign, for a total of $95,500. Mark Penn, who was Bill's pollster and adviser throughout the second term, is now one of Hillary's chief strategists. Roger Altman, former deputy treasury secretary, is a leading figure on her economic team. And Sidney Blumenthal, one of the most public figures of Bill Clinton's second term, joined her campaign on November 15 as a loosely defined "senior adviser."

Many Democratic officials have coalesced around their party's frontrunner in a display of loyalty. New Hampshire State Rep. Ricia McMahon was chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy and worked with Hillary in the 1990s. In 2006, before Clinton announced her candidacy, McMahon and several other prominent Bill Clinton supporters, including former Ambassador Terry Shumaker - America's man in Trinidad and Tobago during the Clinton administration - traveled to Washington to urge Sen. Clinton to seek the presidency.

None of them claim to support her because of Bill, but all of them know her because of her husband. And that's a leg-up no other presidential candidate in history has enjoyed. Despite what he calls "the most impressive field of Democratic presidential candidates since 1992," New Hampshire State Rep. Ray Gagnon is hardly ambivalent in his endorsement of Hillary Clinton. "Sure I support Hillary out of loyalty to her and her husband," says the Bill Clinton-appointed former U.S. marshal for New Hampshire.

Despite the magnitude of the boost Bill Clinton injects in his wife's campaign, the enthusiasm that Hillary Clinton awakens in her own right is well-documented. In Pew's October poll testing a general election match-up between her and Rudy Giuliani, 76 percent of Clinton backers said they were voting for her rather than against her opponent - the highest proportion of affirmative support since Pew first asked the question in 1988. It dwarfed the 43 percent of Kerry voters who said the same in 2004 and placed her ahead of her husband's 1996 run, when he received 66 percent of affirmative support.

Hillary's supporters point out that there is much more to their endorsement than the loyalty they feel towards the Clintons. Rep. Ray Gagnon made sure to maintain such a balance. "She's more than competent and as ready for the job as anyone ever has been," he said. "It's the opposite of supporting George W. Bush as a favor to his father. In Hillary's case, loyalty makes the choice easier, not more difficult." And New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jane Wallner added, "I've just been waiting for Hillary."

Perhaps the biggest payoff from the legacy of the 1990s, Hillary Clinton relies on the fundraising empire her husband built over the years. Seventeen people who identified their employer as the William J. Clinton Foundation or the Clinton Global Initiative donated to Hillary's campaign - and many of them have long been connected to Bill Clinton. Kathy Baczko, who donated $2,300 in the first quarter, is Georgetown '68, Bill's graduating college class; Bruce Lindsey served as assistant to the president, while Douglas Band - who contributed the federal maximum - was a White House intern.

Many of her husband's largest donors have carried over to Hillary. The biggest contributors to political campaigns are typically corporations, though a corporation's total donation is not a direct contribution from the corporate entity but a bundle of donations from people who work at the company and their families. A number of these large organizational donors have crossed over from Bill's 1996 presidential campaign to Hillary Clinton's 2008 run.

According to OpenSecrets.org, the top three non-governmental donors to Bill Clinton in 1996 - Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and Skadden, Arps et al - figure in the list of the top 20 donors to Hillary Clinton in this cycle, and they have contributed a total of more than $600,000. Nine out of these top 20 donors to Hillary were on the list of the top-50 contributors to Bill's campaign.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institute, confirmed that Bill Clinton's connections are a tremendous boost to Hillary's fundraising. "Bill Clinton is obviously exceptionally helpful to the campaign in terms of raising money in the same way tort lawyers are helpful to John Edwards," he said. "As a two-time elected president, Bill Clinton just has a fatter Rolodex."

The case of Goldman Sachs is especially revealing. It was the fourth-largest donor to Bill Clinton in 1996, and ranks second in contributions to Hillary Clinton in the first three quarters of 2007 for a total of more than $350,000. Current New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was the chairman of Goldman Sachs from 1994 to 1999 while an enthusiastic backer of the Clintons.

Today, Jon Corzine has not only endorsed Hillary Clinton's campaign, but he is also one of 223 HillRaisers - the term by which the campaign designates bundlers that have channeled at least $100,000 of individual contributions her way. Campaigns rarely disclose which donations have been brought in by bundlers, but Corzine's muscle on the fundraising circuit offers a clue to the high number of donations from Goldman Sachs employees.

In fact, the list of HillRaisers includes several figures who were major donors to Bill Clinton. Steven Spielberg, despite an early flirtation with Barack Obama, ended up signing on, and so did Vernon Jordan and his wife Ann Dibbie Jordan, major figures of the 1990s. Bill Schwartz, the chairman of BLS Investments, is working as a HillRaiser while the Bernand and Irene Schwartz Foundation has donated $700,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Ted Waitt, the billionaire who founded Gateway Computers, is also a HillRaiser and similarly contributed to Bill's Foundation.

Hillary Clinton even tapped HillRaisers tainted by the fundraising scandals of the 1990s. Marvin Rosen, the former Democratic National Committee finance chairman, became the focal point of Senate hearings for his alleged efforts to reward major party donors with overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom; oilman William Price detailed how his former gas company had tried to gain influence with the Administration in 1995 courtroom.

By relying on such connections, the Clinton campaign runs the risk of reminding voters what they disliked about the 1990s at a time in which her opponents are attempting to bring up the more unpopular aspects of the Clinton Administration. Barack Obama's denunciation of partisanship and John Edwards's attacks on the establishment's ties with corporate America are evolving into increasingly explicit indictments of Bill Clinton's presidency. Democratic voters have hardly expressed any Clinton-fatigue, but Hillary's opponents are hoping to capitalize on her indebtedness to her husband's legacy.

Written by Daniel Nichanian.

Additional reporting by Ethan Hova.

Research assistance from Paul Abrams, Kirsten Anderson, Mariangela Anzalone, Jacqueline Beach, Devorah Bennu, Eileen Berenyi, Teri Berg, Jennifer Bogut, River Curtis-Stanley, David Cohn, Sheila Condit, Chris English, Brian Fairbanks, Mayhill Fowler, Nisha Jani, Melissa Hapke, Cheryl Lynn Helm, Kerri Glover, Jonathan Goldberg, Steve Greenberg, Emily Hanson, Kati Hollis, Saba Kennedy-Washington, Mark Kusick, JoAnne Lindsley, Kevin Ly, Andrea Marcus, Barbara Mazor, Jack McEnany, Kirstin Michel, Jeanine Molloff, Andrea Noren, Kelly Nuxoll, Suzanne O'Keeffe, Heather Pritchard, Neal Rodriguez, Dale Simmons, Sandra Thompson, Jema Watts, and Denise Wheeler.