WASHINGTON — Though Sen. Barack Obama has sharply criticized commercial bankers for their role in the housing crisis, political donations originating from the industry favor him over his rival for the presidency.
Through last month bankers have given the Illinois Democrat $1.9 million this election cycle, compared with $1.7 million to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.
This is the first time since the center started tracking the data in 1990 that commercial bankers gave more to a Democratic presidential nominee than the GOP contender — even when President Clinton was running for a second term in 1996. The trend was also true across the broader financial services industry, which gave $22.4 million to Sen. Obama and $19 million to Sen. McCain.
The reason for the switch is likely twofold, political analysts said.
"Obama has swamped McCain in fund raising, and so it's a rare group that hasn't given more to Obama than McCain," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Second, it's a Democratic year, and you don't have to be a professional political analyst to see it. That doesn't mean Obama will beat McCain, but rather that Democrats are dominating at every other level of elections. Business likes to have access to the winners."
Until recently, polls had favored Sen. Obama and the Democrats, who kick off their convention today in Denver. But commercial banks usually take pains to remain closely divided between the two parties, with donations hovering within a range of 40% to 60% either way.
That remained true overall for commercial banks in this election cycle, but at individual institutions, it was clear which way bankers thought the wind was blowing.
Among top commercial banking donors in combined political action committee and individual contributions, JPMorgan Chase & Co. jumped to first place this cycle by donating $3.2 million, 61% of it to Democrats. In the 2006 election cycle it ranked fourth, with $2 million, 54% of which went to Democrats.
Employees and others associated with the New York company overwhelmingly favored Sen. Obama, giving him $404,121 and Sen. McCain $158,875.
Citigroup Inc. held steady as the second-largest donor, with $2.8 million, and followed the trend of giving more to Democrats, who got 61%. Sen. Obama received $391,004, while Sen. McCain netted $245,651.
In the last election cycle Bank of America Corp. gave 57% of its $2 million of donations to Republicans. So far in this cycle it has given 53% of its $2.2 million to Democrats. There, too, Sen. Obama was the largest beneficiary, receiving $197,229 from individuals connected with the Charlotte company, versus $118,425 for Sen. McCain.
Even among those still favoring Republicans, the margin decreased. Wells Fargo & Co., which gave 61% of its $1.05 million of donations to Republicans in the 2006 election cycle, gave them 51% of its $1.1 million this time.
Bank of New York Mellon Corp. was rare among the top donors from the commercial banking sector in favoring Sen. McCain. He got $90,500, compared with $28,675 for Sen. Obama.
It is hard to know what conclusions to draw from the numbers, but observers agree they do not necessarily mean bankers believe Sen. Obama would be better for their business.
"A lot of it is trying to be on the winning team," said Brian Gardner, an analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., and a former GOP staff member. "They want to be aligned with the winner, and that will help them at least have their arguments heard if Obama wins."
Industry lobbyists privately offer a range of explanations, but many say bankers' donations have little link to a candidate's views on banking.
"It's less of a self-interested, parochial pocketbook kind of vote and more of a desire for a change in direction," said one lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I don't think this is one of those 'buy access' kind of situations. You don't always give for pure financial self interest."
Andy Laperriere, the managing director of International Strategy and Investment Group, said the fact that Sen. Obama is getting the majority of industry contributions is more indicative of his record-breaking fund raising than a preference for his financial services positions.
As of July 31 he had raised $389 million and spent $323.6 million. He had $65.8 million of cash on hand and $915,894 of debts. Sen. McCain had raised $174 million and spent $141 million. He had $32.7 million of cash on hand and $2 million of debts.
"People make too much of it when they say 'industry' has given this or given that, when in fact it's people," Mr. Laperriere said.
Also, the bulk of contributions to the two candidates have come from individuals rather than company contributions in the form of PAC donations. Sen. McCain has received only 1% of his money from PACs, and Sen. Obama does not take such money at all.
Still, the list of top contributors for both candidates reads like a who's who of financial services firms.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is Sen. Obama's top donor, with $627,730. JPMorgan Chase is third, and Citi is fourth. UBS AG is fifth, with $378,400; Lehman Brothers is eighth, with $353,922; and Morgan Stanley is 14th, with $291,388.
Sen. McCain has a similar list of donors, and his top 20 lineup is even more jam-packed with investment and commercial banks.
Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. is his top donor, with $284,610. Citi is second. Morgan Stanley is third, with $211,821, and Goldman is fourth, with $198,045. JPMorgan Chase is seventh. Credit Suisse Group is ninth, with $133,125, and UBS is 10th, with $127,315. B of A is 11th.
Lehman is 13th, with $112,700; PricewaterhouseCoopers is 14th, with $111,070; Wachovia Corp. is 15th, with $111,046; Bear Stearns Cos. (now part of JPMorgan Chase) is 18th, with $90,100; and Bank of New York Mellon is 20th.
All the figures are as of July 28 and reflect the latest filings compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Though almost all of that giving has been at an individual level, it is still a significant sign of what is going on in the industry, observers said.
"We think that it's important to look at both" individual and PAC contributions, said Massie Ritsch, the center's communications director. "If you are looking at money in commercial banking, if you leave out individuals, you're leaving out $18 million out of the $25 million that has been contributed."
Individuals make donations "for all sorts of reasons, and unfortunately, on the FEC reports that are filed, the motivation for the contribution is not required," he said. "There's no box that says 'Why'd you make this donation?' Our methodology assumes an economic self-interest, because the FEC collects information on employer and occupation."
Even though bankers are giving more to Sen. Obama than to Sen. McCain, they are still backing mostly Republican candidates in other races. Including House and Senate races, commercial bankers have given 52% of their $25.6 million of donations to Republicans. That is the most even split between the parties since 1994. For a decade starting in 1996, the donations consistently tipped toward Republicans by at least 62%.
Considering only PAC money, commercial banks have given 56% of their $6.7 million to GOP candidates this cycle. Banking lobbyists generally say they tend to contribute to candidates who understand their issues and are open to hearing their point of view, even if they do not always vote in their organization's interest.
In the current political environment, facing tough legislation driven by the Democrats in charge of Congress, bankers have tended to rely on Republicans, particularly leadership members and senior legislators on key committees. The bankers also rely heavily on moderate and pro-business Democrats.
As such, the top recipient for bank PAC money was House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, with $90,000, followed closely by Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the senior Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, with $89,500.
The PACs also give to Democrats in leadership positions. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was the third-largest recipient, with $68,000. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., was fourth, with $63,250. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., was eighth, with $57,750. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois was 12th, with $53,500.
And even though employees at the big commercial banking companies donated significantly to Sens. Obama and McCain, their chief executives have largely stayed above the fray, even if they gave to presidential contenders who have since dropped out.
JPMorgan Chase CEO James Dimon, a well-known Democrat, contributed $4,600 last year to Sen. Hillary Clinton and $2,300 to Sen. Dodd. Mr. Dimon has given to other Democrats, as well as to Republicans, but he has not given to Sens. Obama or McCain.
Charles Prince, who was ousted as Citi's CEO in November, gave $2,300 to Mitt Romney's campaign in October and $2,000 to Sen. Dodd in December 2006. Vikram Pandit, Mr. Prince's successor, has not given to any presidential candidate.
Kenneth Lewis, the chief executive at B of A, has contributed to congressional races, but not to any presidential candidate.
The housing crisis may be a big reason thrifts have largely fallen by the wayside this election cycle. Thrifts and their employees have donated $1.4 million, or about $500,000 less than in the 2006 cycle. Among presidential candidates, Sen. Dodd got the most from the thrift industry, receiving $53,850, followed by Sen. Obama, with $48,099, and Sen. McCain, with $36,700.
Washington Mutual Inc., the largest and most recognizable of the thrift companies, has been hit by the housing market's woes. It has given less than it did in the previous cycle, but it has also shifted more heavily toward Democrats. They received 57% of the Seattle company's $428,322 of PAC and individual contributions. In the 2006 cycle, 54% of Wamu's $601,360 of donations went to Republicans.
Other financial services companies have given heavily this cycle.
In the real estate subset of mortgage bankers and brokers, Fannie Mae is No. 1, giving 61% of its $963,700 to Democrats. Freddie Mac was No. 3, with 56% of its $449,167 in donations going to Democrats.