In a world where global leaders are caught on hot mics and members of royalty are photographed on seemingly private vacations, it has baffled some political observers that presidential candidates are caught off guard when their remarks at closed-door fundraisers end up getting shared with a much wider audience.
From then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 comments in San Francisco about small-town Americans clinging to guns and religion, to Mitt Romney’s appraisal of the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, these supposed gaffes have at times changed the outlook of a race.
“It’s kind of a head-scratcher,” said political consultant Scott Ferson, who worked on Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy’s 1994 reelection campaign against Romney. “Isn’t the first rule never to say anything you don’t want to read on the front page of the newspaper? So if that’s Lesson One in terms of campaign communications, what is the dynamic of a closed-door fundraiser that makes people go wild?”
As presidential campaigns become increasingly more expensive enterprises, in which candidates raise hundreds of millions of dollars, time spent with wealthy donors is becoming a bigger part of the process. Presidents running for reelection have increased their attendance at fundraisers substantially since 1984, when President Reagan did not hold a single such event. Obama has held 208 fundraisers since he officially launched his reelection effort in May 2011, according to CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller, who compiles presidential statistics. At this point in his reelection campaign, Republican George W. Bush had done 93 fundraising events.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said that some candidates talk more informally in these intimate settings, but they should know their words could get leaked to the press.
“There’s no politician who should be dense enough to think that anything that he says at fundraiser—even if it’s closed door, even if these are people who’ve given him $50,000—he should not for a minute think that anything he says can be successfully kept off the record,” Rendell said. “There were waiters there, and these days, technology is so great that anyone can take anything with tiny little instruments.”
The Romney campaign said it does not plan to change its policy of allowing donors to bring in cell phones or any other electronic devices into these fundraisers.
Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California (Berkeley), explains that this “surprisingly naïve” moment of Romney’s is typical of someone feeling comfortable in a seemingly private setting.
“This is an example where somebody is perhaps behaving more authentically because they don’t think many people are listening,” Willer said. “So when individuals are acting and talking in smaller, more-selective environments, they might be more honest and authentic because they believe the reputational stakes of what they say are lower. So what they might say to a couple friends, two or three people over lunch, is very different than what you would say in a speech or on national television.
“Politicians have to balance a desire to say what a certain audience wants to hear with accountability,” he said. “Romney, here, is presumably saying things that, whether he believes it or not, he believes that his audience wants to hear what he’s saying. A difficulty here is that it came out in public to a much larger audience that isn’t entirely receptive and sympathetic to this message and this way of talking about it.”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that some of these gaffes come from sheltering a campaign away from the press for too long. Romney has been criticized for rarely taking questions from his traveling press corps, complaints that reached a new height on his foreign tour in July. Rosenstiel said that a candidate exposed to the press becomes a better politician--and possibly a better president.
"If you become a better candidate by talking to voters more, you probably benefit from exposing yourself to the queries of press,” he said. “It’s not as if those reporters all go back to doing something else if you get elected. They actually have offices, cubicles at the White House and following you around all the time.”
So why risk the potential political fallout from off-the-cuff comments made at a closed-door fundraiser leaked to the press? Fundraisers give big donors an inside look into the campaign in exchange for a more hefty campaign donation, said consultant Ferson, president of the Liberty Square Group. And Rendell noted that many of the donors don’t want their identities to be made public.
“When you’re with people, particularly high donors, you want to give them something that they’re not hearing from your campaign ad or reading in the newspaper every day,” Ferson said. By attending these events, listening to like-minded advisers, and avoiding excessive press interaction, politicians have a tendency to play to the extremes of a party. And that seems to have been the case with both Romney and Obama at the fundraiser with his supporters four years ago, he said.
And while Rendell agrees that big-dollar fundraisers can be valuable, he said, “You can be a little looser without the media around, but you’ve got to be conscious that nothing you say will be totally private. You can be a little bit more relaxed, tell a joke or two that’s not off color or insults anybody, you can let your guard down a slight bit. Anything you say on an issue, you have to assume it’ll go out in the public domain.”