Watchdog Q&A

Published — February 14, 2020

Q&A: Maggie Severns on political bundlers

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, center, speaks as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, listen during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, hosted by ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Introduction

We’re continuing our series featuring reporters who have reported powerful stories. This week, we’re featuring Maggie Severns from POLITICO, who reported on political bundlers — these uber fundraisers who help candidates stack up on campaign funds by collecting checks from friends and associates. Now that we’ve kicked off the primaries, we thought it would be a good time to take a look back at how this kind of political fundraising has influenced the Democratic field — even after candidates like Kamala Harris have dropped out of the race. Tracking donations is very ambitious. Check out her past coverage here and here. 

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

We had an idea to take lists of campaign bundlers for the last two Democratic presidential nominees and track who they donate to during the 2020 primary in order to get a look under the hood, from a data perspective, at the Democrats wooing their party’s top fundraisers.

So far, this experiment has yielded really interesting results. Early in the year, when candidates were trying to project an image that they were not very interested in big money, searching bundlers helped show that Kamala Harris had leaned into courting major donors. And in July we learned that after hesitating during the first part of the year, bundlers had started to give big en masse to candidates — Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg were their favorites. People who gave money to Biden, meanwhile, were fine looking past the criticism over his remarks (some of them made at fundraisers) about working with segregationists. (Then there are the interviews I’m still pining for: There is one former Clinton bundler who has donated to Bernie Sanders this cycle and I’d love to talk with her, but I haven’t been able to get her to call me back yet!)

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? 

Time! POLITICO works hard to stay topical,and we’re always racing a deadline with this story, trying to get it out within a couple days so that the information is getting to readers while they’re still absorbing news about candidate’s fundraising announcements. The sheer amount of work it takes is another challenge: if we didn’t have a small army of people lending their time every few months it would be impossible for this to come together. It’s not something that can be automated as easily as you’d think.

A lack of transparency is another factor. We have a list of past bundler’s names to work with — which I’m grateful for, as it was voluntarily disclosed by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s past campaigns. But it’s limited information: I can only see very general information on how much a person has fundraised in the past and don’t necessarily have much identifying information about him or her, because campaigns voluntarily release the lists and the information they release isn’t standardized. 

The takeaway: Experimentation yields great journalistic triumphs. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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