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Big dollars fuel, shape politicians' campaigns

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Money is the lifeblood of politics, and increasingly, it defines and dominates campaigns.

It gives rich candidates an instant edge. It makes politicians prisoners of the coffee-and-cocktail fund-raising circuit -- time that could be used to do the work of government, or to engage voters who are not wielding checkbooks.

It fuels the constant barrage of costly TV ads that have become a staple of elections in an era where a 30-second commercial can define a life.

Critics complain the frantic scramble for money is corrosive and has turned elections into a carnival of slick consultants, pollsters and soundbites. They say well-heeled contributors spread around enormous wads of cash in return for favors, corrupting the system.

But defenders say money is used to inform voters and dollars collected from grass-roots fund raising -- including the Internet -- give Americans more of a say in deciding who will govern.

Either way, money talks in politics and it's louder than ever.

"The amount of money that it takes to run a presidential campaign is just absolutely mind-blowing," says Joe Scarborough, a former Florida congressman turned MSNBC talk show host. "It can't be healthy for this republic that you've got to raise $200 million to have a shot."

Many of President Bush's supporters think he could raise $200 million in his re-election bid; presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry hopes to reach about $105 million by summer.

And that doesn't include the $74.6 million each candidate will receive in public financing for the fall race.

But not everyone laments the high cost of campaigns.

"We spend more on renting movies and buying frozen yogurt than we do per capita on politics," says Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at Washington's Cato Institute, which advocates limited government.

And this year there will be new boundaries on spending.

This is the first election cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on "soft money," which ended the common practice of corporations, labor unions and others writing fat checks to the national Democratic and Republican parties. In the 2002 elections, the two parties collected nearly a half-billion dollars in soft money.

The new ban, long championed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is considered the most sweeping campaign finance law in 30 years.

"It has broken the corrupting nexus between huge contributors and federal officeholders," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign watchdog group.

Still, money abounds.

As much as $1.3 billion will be spent on political advertising in all races across the country this year, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says for all the worry about undue influence caused by this influx of cash, there's a positive side, too.

"It's also a means to a very good end -- civic education," he says. "Without a lot of money, voters would not know some of the things they need to know."

New style of fund raising

Eli Pariser is one of a new breed of political fund-raisers.

From a tiny office in his fourth-floor walk-up in midtown Manhattan, Pariser rakes in millions of dollars as head of the political action committee formed by MoveOn.org, a liberal group opposed to many of President Bush's policies.

For the 23-year-old Pariser, there's strength in numbers.

People wonder "'What is my $25 going to do?"' he says. "When they know they're giving in conjunction with 10 or 20,000 people, all of a sudden you're talking about $250,000 or $500,000 or a million dollars ... that's very powerful."

Pariser is far from alone in harnessing the Internet's power.

RightMarch.com, an umbrella site for conservative groups, acts as a rapid response to MoveOn.org, raising money for newspaper ads that counter the liberal organization's message.

"We're fighting fire with fire," says William Greene, the founder.

The hands-down winner in the Internet fund-raising derby has been Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose presidential bid collapsed even though he raised some $50 million, much of it from small donors who gave online.

"By giving money, they have crossed the line from spectator to participant," Sabato says of Internet contributors. "There's no more important line in politics."

While new bans on donations to the national parties will force candidates to scour for smaller contributions, there are plenty of other sources of cash.

Federal political action committees, which represent every powerful lobbying group, raised about $376 million last year, according to the FEC.

PACs, however, are legally limited in the size of their contributions. In this election year, another kind of advocacy group -- the so-called 527 organization, named for a section of the tax code -- has become more popular and controversial.

These tax-exempt "soft money" groups, independent of parties and campaigns, can raise endless amounts of cash. Democrats have been quickest to capitalize on them.

Some 527 groups have run anti-Bush TV ads, leading the president's campaign to accuse them of being in cahoots with Kerry -- something the Democrat denies.

But clearly, the money spigot has not been turned off.

"Under the First Amendment, it's virtually impossible to stop the flow of money," Sabato says. "You can reroute the flow. And that's what's happening again."


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