When Sen. Barack Obama began running for president in 2007, a small handful of determined, inspired supporters found a new political calling. A new group of professionals — from a San Juan jewelry store owner to a West Coast biotech executive — raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each for him and their "bundling" was crucial in helping Obama offset Hillary Clinton's profound financial and institutional advantages.
Four years later, many of those new bundlers say they won't be coming back. For reasons ranging from disillusion and dissatisfaction to an overriding sense that the once idealistic Obama crusade has become yet another soulless political behemoth, that inspired cadre of early Obama supporters has largely been replaced by professional Democratic Party operatives.
Campaign officials deny that there's any "enthusiasm gap," and indeed the new operation appears to be on track to raise as much money as Obama did in his record-setting 2008 campaign. But the identity and mood of the campaign is very different.
The shift among bundlers is part of a broader transformation of an insurgent candidate of hope and change to an incumbent president grinding out his re-election amid the very real and often daunting world of Washington politics. As POLITICO reported recently, Obama's small dollar fundraising effort will rely more on technical muscle and massive numbers — and less on raw inspiration — in 2012 than it did in 2008. Calls to most of the 105 people who "bundled" more than $200,000 for Obama in 2008 but didn't appear on a list of bundlers released last week suggest the same is true of some of his more large-sum volunteer fundraisers. While Obama's campaign always depended in part on Chicago institutional money, office-seekers, and other traditional fundraising sources, the new campaign will be more machine and less dream, more sweat and less inspiration.
"It's a political machine now," said Pete Garcia, the chief financial officer of a Washington State biotech company who fell for Obama early and hard in 2008, and raised more than $200,0000 in his first dive into political fundraising.
"I wasn't doing it to be an ambassador or anything like that. I was doing it because I strongly believed in his message. I just thought that he would be a little more different than he is," said Garcia, who said he expects to vote for Obama but won't be involved in the campaign.
Obama has lost another share of top bundlers for other reasons: They're ambassadors or other appointees, with plum embassies from London to Luxembourg now occupied by top fundraisers. About half of the very top tier of bundlers — those who brought in more than $500,000 —were rewarded with political appointments.
But Obama's staff says both classes of dropouts have been replaced with a motivated new generation.
"We raised $86 million in the second quarter from more than 552,000 Americans, 260,000 of which had never given before. Our major fundraisers for the campaign are a mix of longtime supporters and those getting involved for the first time because of their support for the president, like many of our young professional Gen44 fundraisers," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt in an e-mail. "While many of the fundraisers from the last campaign are already engaged again more than 450 days before the election, some are just now mobilizing and many are new, which we view as a growth opportunity. Our large grass-roots donor base — 98 percent of our donations were in the amount of $250 or less — stands in stark contrast to the Romney campaign which raised only 6 percent of contributions from small dollar donations."
But the young professionals aren't the only ones replacing those missing bundlers. They've have been replaced in part by one newly motivated and supportive group, gay fundraisers, whose money network has always been key to Democratic politics but who have warmed to Obama's position on key issues since he's been in the White House. But the largest new cohort is the permanent Democratic fundraising class, most of whom bet on Clinton in 2008. And their sharp elbows and desire for credit haven't gone over well with the early, more idealistic donors.
"I will obviously vote, but I don't think we're going to be actively involved in raising money," said Willard Taylor, a New York lawyer who, along with his wife Virginia Davies, hosted one of the first New York City Obama events in 2007, bucking the city's nearly unified backing for Clinton.
"I think he's done a terrible job with Organizing for America and for his base, and with the recognition of the people who worked for him," Taylor said. "I frankly think the staff, the re-election staff, are incompetent fools."
Others have parted with the campaign without anger, instead holding onto the perfect memory of 2008.
"I'm positive that he's going to win again. It's easier to win again when you're the sitting president," said Marie Morrow, who lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and owns a chain of jewelry stores. She raised $200,000 to $500,000 for Obama in the last campaign.
"No matter how hard that it looks, he doesn't need me," she said.
Those who remain say they expect to work harder, replacing not just the inspired early donors but also disaffected bankers and pro-Israel donors with a more traditional hard political sell.
"It's more difficult," said Rob Tessler, a New York-based lawyer and a member of the president's tri-state fundraising committee. "I mean, it was much easier when he was Barack Obama, the mostly unknown who spoke wonderfully and said great things and was charismatic. Once you've been in office — being re-elected is a lot harder. "
"I've been to a lot of meetings," he said. "We recognize what needs to be done to recapture some of it. It's just harder. But we'll do it."
"Young people," he said, are the main missing ingredient right now.
"This is a different candidate. It's a different time," said Miami bundler Marlon Hill, who said he's one of the old-line bundlers who is throwing himself back into the breach. "We'll be working harder than in 2008."
Others see a practical route forward.
"They need to go old school and raise money from special interests," said a member of the Obama national finance committee.
Gordon Davis, a prominent African-American lawyer in New York and early Obama fundraiser, said the tenor of support from African-American professionals — a key new money source in 2008 — had also changed, but that the money would be there again.
The money "is coming in slightly different ways. It's not so much identifiable as African-American support as it is people using the more traditional channels to give and participate," he said. "It's not going to be quite the same experience, but I don't have any doubt that that support will be there."
And some donors on the 2008 list said they plan to get involved, but haven't been motivated to do so yet.
"I just kind of haven't re-engaged yet," said Robert Weissbourd, who raised more than $50,000 in 2008. "I literally have just been totally swamped with other stuff. But I'm a big fan, and I am sure I'll get around to it."
POLITICO's MacKenzie Weinger contributed to this report. POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.