World

A Presidency for Sale?

As campaign costs spiral, the vote hinges more on fund-raising

Andrew Phillips August 9 1999
World

A Presidency for Sale?

As campaign costs spiral, the vote hinges more on fund-raising

Andrew Phillips August 9 1999

A Presidency for Sale?

World

As campaign costs spiral, the vote hinges more on fund-raising

Andrew Phillips

As these things go, it wasn’t much. An oyster bar, big bowls of caesar salad and something described as “jumbo lump crab fondue”—all served on plastic plates to 400 people milling around one evening last week in the atrium of a fancy new children’s museum in Baltimore. The food may have been so-so, but the price of admission was hefty: $ 1,000 (U.S.) a head for the privilege of hearing Al Gore, vice-president and presidential candidate, assure the locals that he is “crazy about Baltimore.”

Ka-ching!Another $400,000 in the bank for Gore 2000, the organization dedicated to moving its namesake into the Oval Office when Bill Clinton departs in 18 months. More than anything else, this is the essential activity of the modern American politician—not shaking hands or making speeches, but raking in the bucks. At breakfasts, coffees, lunches, dinners and receptions large and small, Gore and his competitors are bringing in record amounts to fuel a campaign system with a seemingly insatiable hunger for cash. This year, the amounts are so big and are coming in so early that many fear the lineup for the 2000 presidential contest has already been decided—six months before the first voter has a chance to cast a ballot.

There’s nothing new, of course, about big money in American politics. In 1996, Democrats and Republicans alike spent record amounts—$2.4 billion, by one estimate, in races for the White House and Congress. That will almost certainly be shattered this time, and in ways that call into question the modern system of selecting presidential candidates. Gore raised $19.6

million in the first half of 1999, while his rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley, scooped up a surprisingly healthy total of $ 11.7 million. But it was Texas Gov. George W. Bush whose fund-raising prowess most astonished observers. He collected $373 million—by far the most ever so early in a campaign season, and six times that of his nearest Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Bush raised so much, in fact, that he decided not to accept matching federal funds available to major presidential candidates. By forgoing that money ($16.3 million for the primary season), Bush will not have to abide by campaign spending limits—meaning he can far outspend his rivals for the party’s nomination. Still, Bush’s war chest is just one sign of how intense the fight for funds has become. Consider:

• Democrats are aiming to raise as much as $200 million in so-called soft money—unregulated hands that critics say amount to a giant loophole in U.S. campaign financing laws. That would be a huge jump from the $ 122 million they collected in 1995-1996.

• A group of wealthy New York Democrats have pledged to raise $25 million to finance Hillary Rodham Clintons allbut-certain race for the Senate there. She has also mailed one million appeals for financial support across the country— while Republicans out to “pillory Hillary” are pouring money into the state. If Clintons likely opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, matches her in fund-raising, their Senate fight will be the costliest congressional race ever.

• Even relatively obscure candidates are raking it in. Simmering passions left over from the fight to impeach President Bill Clinton earlier this year are being used by both sides to get their supporters to open their wallets. In a recent fundraising letter, Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt reminded supporters that Republicans “ignored the will of the people to serve their own extremist agenda.” One of the Republicans who led the fight against Clinton in the House of Representatives, James Rogan of California, has been targeted by pro-Clinton figures in Hollywood who have donated large sums to his likely Democratic opponent. Rogan, in turn, used his role in the impeachment battle to raise more than $750,000—a previously unheard-of amount for a junior congressman more than a year from re-election.

A few candidates are trying to make an issue out of the spiralling race for money. McCain puts reforming the system at the centre of his agenda. In late July, Bradley proposed free TV time for candidates so they could “run on the strength of their ideas, not the weight of their wallets.” And Republican outsider Lamar Alexander, a onetime governor of Tennessee, last week started running TV ads in the early-voting state of Iowa in which he mocks Bushs fund-raising bonanza. “An auction is under way on the White House lawn,” an announcer intones over pictures of men in string ties and cowboy hats calling out bids.

Why the earlier-than-ever rush for money? Partly because there is so much of it available. In the eighth year of economic expansion, the pool of potential donors is bigger than ever. And since the maximum allowable contribution of $1,000 per person to a presidential campaign has not been changed since the post-Watergate reforms of 1974, candidates must

reach more and more people to collect what they need.

Most important, though, is the so-called front-loading of the political primary season. In previous years, primaries stretched over several months, with Iowa and New Hampshire kicking off the contest in early February, key southern states following in March and some big states like California not holding votes until June. That meant a little-known and underhanded candidate, like Jimmy Carter in 1976, could score well early, then use that support to draw bigger contributions.

That strategy is impossible now because so many states have moved their primaries forward. By the middle of March, both the Democratic and Republican nominations will be sewn up—so candidates need to score big early. “The pressure is intense to raise a lot of money right away,” says Paul Hendrie of Washingtons Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “They need it up front.” The same pressure has focused unusual attention on an event usually dismissed as marginal—the Iowa straw poll on Aug. 14. As many as 1,200 Republican activists will get together in Ames, Iowa, to vote for the candidate of their choice. Several who fall short this time will likely quit.

The result is that political donors rather than primary state voters will have the key say in who the parties nominate. Defenders of the system say it looks worse than it is—a candidates ability to raise money, they argue, usually reflects his or her popularity (leaving aside such figures as multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who is financing his bid for the Republican nomination from his own pocket). Bushs campaign, for example, notes that his record $37 million came from 74,000 individuals giving an average of less than $500.

In reality, of course, the usual suspects top the fund-raising lists—lawyers, lobbyists and corporate executives. Bush has raised much of his cash by enlisting some 400 “Pioneers” pledged to raise $100,000 each. The Pioneers must find 100 people willing to give $ 1,000 each, but their cheques are typically identified by a code number that allows the Bush campaign to credit them for the total. Another manoeuvre is called “bundling”: a law firm, for example, gets its partners and their spouses to donate $1,000 each, and then sends the total of $50,000 or so to the campaign. All perfectly legal— but critics say both methods skirt the intent of the 1974 law, which aimed at minimizing the influence of any one donor.

There are a few signs that change may be coming. McCain has won a promise from Senate leaders that his campaign finance proposals will at least be debated by mid-October. And both parties are looking at ways to undo the self-destructive rush to ever-earlier primaries. That, however, would not take place until the election of2004. Next year’s race is already being shaped by this year’s frenzied rush for cash. C33