How To Spend A Billion Dollars

Campaign buttons for both parties, over the capitol and money.
By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

The most expensive presidential election in U.S. history, approaching a total cost of $1 billion, is being bankrolled largely by private sources, which could render the public financing system all but impotent.

The Bush-Cheney campaign insists it will accept federal funds for the general election. But if it was not for the exceptionally late Republican convention, it may have chosen to forgo public financing entirely. If the Bush-Cheney campaign did, it could likely raise nearly double the $75 million allocated to candidates for the general election.

"If Kerry is really ahead or close to Bush in the polls, maybe by the Republican convention I can see a scenario where President Bush decides he can raise more than that $75 million and he wants to use it," said Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonpartisan group monitoring campaign finance. "The Republicans are in an interesting position because their convention is relatively late."

A campaign can no longer spend money raised during the primary process after the close of its party convention. Because the Democrats hold their convention from July 26 to 29, a month earlier than the Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 GOP gathering, the Democrats have to make their $75 million stretch a month longer. Each party chooses when to have its convention.

Already, the public financing system for primaries has proven a hindrance towards becoming either party's nominee. When President Bush ran for the White House in 2000 he became the first candidate not to accept public financing for the primary race.

Vice President Al Gore spent the spring and summer of 2000 silenced by a lack of cash because his campaign accepted public funds. That allowed Mr. Bush to define himself through advertising and surmount the bully pulpit advantage held, at least to some extent, by an incumbent vice president.

Joining Mr. Bush this election, Democrats Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry decided to forgo public financing for the primary, as well. Dean, the former Vermont governor, was already well on his way to surpassing the $47 million the government offers to primary candidates who choose to participate in the system. Now the Democratic presumptive nominee, Kerry has nearly doubled that sum so far.

"The general consensus is that Kerry could not be competing against Bush if he had stayed in the system," said Noble, who formerly served as the lead attorney for the Federal Election Commission.

"Virtually everybody that has looked at it thinks the system is outdated," he continued. "It was designed over 25 years ago in the presidential campaign and things have changed tremendously over this time."

Noble cites three fundamental flaws in the modern campaign finance system.

"The spending limits are too low; $47 million is unrealistically low during a primary campaign," he said. "There are state-by-state limits, how much they can spend in each state, which really has nothing to do with modern campaigns anymore... We came up with a very frontloaded system so in fact they have to spend a lot in the early states."

The third problem, Noble says, is that the campaigns are running out of money. "The participation in the system, a voluntary system, has been steadily dropping and now I think it is below 10 percent," he explained. "The income amount was not increasing while the amount paid out was."

Anthony Corrado, an expert in campaign funding at Maine's Colby College and a governance fellow at The Brookings Institution, says, "The irony of Dean, Kerry, Bush choosing not to select public funding is that their decision to opt out has had the effect of saving the public funding system for another election cycle. In the next election, public financing could not be accepted at all."

President Bush raised a staggering $50 million in March alone. Kerry followed with $38 million, a sum far surpassing Democratic expectations.

At the close of March 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign had spent a total of $46 million on advertising and $27.6 million on administrative costs. The Kerry campaign spent $16.6 million on advertising and $17.7 million on administrative costs.

Illustrating the cost of being the challenger, Kerry spent $8.4 million on travel costs and another $7.9 million on event expenses. Comparatively, the president's campaign has only spent $2.7 million on travel and $2.1 million on event expenses. The totals, as of March 31, 2004, are based on expenditure tracking done by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The possibility of reaching the $1 billion mark, first reported in The Los Angeles Times, is based upon expectations that the Bush campaign will raise $210 million by the Republican convention while the Kerry campaign will raise $120 million by the Democratic convention.

The two parties will spend a combined $100 million to elect their candidates and another $100 million on their conventions. Add in $150 million from general election public financing, $200 million spent by independent political organizations, plus $160 million spent by the Democratic primary challengers to Kerry, and the total surpasses $1 billion.

Campaign finance experts like Corrado and Noble argue that the McCain-Feingold legislation succeeded in making small donations far more effective since it closed the soft money funding loophole of the national Democratic and Republican parties. But they say the only way to wean candidates off their huge dependence on private fundraising is to make the public financing coffer so deep that it outweighs the benefits of time-consuming fundraising.

"You would have campaigns that are fought out more in terms of active campaigning and news coverage rather than 30-second campaign ads," Corrado said. "Some people argue that that's worse and others argue that I would rather have the candidates giving their own message rather than have their message filtered through the media."