Behind the Numbers: Tilt!

In the final weeks of the 1968 election, Hubert H. Humphrey was closing in on Richard Nixon. Supporters of George Wallace's third-party campaign were returning to the Democratic fold, and Humphrey was winning renewed support from liberals after calling for a bombing halt in Vietnam. It seemed Humphrey might have a chance.

Except for one problem: Humphrey was broke. Lyndon Johnson controlled hundreds of thousands of dollars in a "President's Fund," but he wouldn't release them for his vice president. Humphrey couldn't even afford to run television commercials until a few weeks before the election. The Nixon campaign, by contrast, was lavishly funded. While many factors hurt the Democrats that awful year—Vietnam, urban riots, the raucous Chicago convention—it is clear that if Humphrey (who ended up losing by just 1 percent of the vote) had even come close to matching Nixon's financial resources, the Democrat could have won the election.

Since then, no presidential contest has been determined—or even greatly affected—by a financial imbalance between the parties. Reform laws passed in the wake of Watergate both limited and equalized spending. And while the arms race in soft money (large contributions funneled through the Republican and Democratic parties, rather than directly to the candidates) has wildly escalated in recent years, the parties have basically kept pace with each other. Yes, the campaign finance system that has developed is appalling and corrupting. It unquestionably tilts House and Senate races and presidential primaries, too. But it has generally been understood that, post-Watergate, campaign spending alone cannot determine the occupant of the highest office in the land.

Until now. George W. Bush is attracting campaign cash the way a magnet attracts metal filings. Fred Wertheimer, who is the former president of the campaign watchdog group Common Cause and who now heads the think tank Democracy 21, worries that the 2000 presidential election could be a financial blowout. "Based on what has happened so far," he told me, "I would estimate that—assuming Bush is the nominee—he will be operating with twice as much candidate hard money in the primaries and twice as much soft money as the Democratic nominee will. And that may well be a conservative estimate." Professor Anthony Corrado of Colby College, probably the most respected academic analyst of campaign-money trends, says, "It is clearly the case that the financial gap will be the greatest in this election . . . since before the 1974 election laws." People directly involved in raising money for candidates in the 2000 election confirm the likelihood of a potentially staggering GOP advantage.

Laws passed after Watergate were supposed to prevent this. In the aftermath of Nixon's 1972 re-election—with its revelations of campaign funds laundered through Mexico and cabinet secretaries carrying cash in paper bags—Congress passed the landmark 1974 campaign finance law, which stated that presidential candidates who limited their spending to a set amount would receive matching federal funds in the party primaries. The nominees of the two major parties would each receive a block grant for the fall campaign and were not supposed to engage in fundraising beyond that. And while in its decision in Buckley v. Valeo the Supreme Court struck down many of the provisions designed to clean up congressional races, the strict rules for presidential campaigns were kept largely in place.

For years the new system worked, though it unraveled a bit each election cycle. In 1976, limited to little more than their $22 million in public funding, the two parties each raised almost exactly the same amount of money. In 1980 parties began to raise unregulated soft money to augment the limited presidential funds. In 1984 both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan began to widen the loopholes in the law: Mondale raised off-the-books money from unions, and Reagan raised substantially larger amounts from business. But it's unlikely that even considerably more money for the dour Mondale would have helped him compete successfully against the happy glow of "morning in America."

In 1988, for the first time, both parties aggressively raised soft money for the presidential campaign. But—even though George Bush was a member of the incumbent administration—Mike Dukakis and the Democrats managed to stay financially competitive. In 1992, partly because of the recession, the Democrats stayed nearly even with the GOP, raising $49 million to the incumbent party's $53 million in unregulated funds. In 1996, through years of frenetic—and sometimes questionable—fundraising, the Democrats were able to raise $124 million in soft money. (Their controversial "issue ads" lambasting the Republican Congress helped set the tone for the election.) Still, for the 1996 election, the Democratic Party spent 40 percent less than the Republican Party. That Clinton managed to win suggested that the relative weight of campaign cash still didn't dictate the electoral outcome in a presidential race.

ut when George W. Bush nonchalantly announced that he would not abide by spending limits or take public matching funds for the primaries, the game changed. As of mid-October, Bush had raised $57 million. His 150 "Pioneers" have agreed to raise $100,000 each for the primaries alone. With nine of 10 of the biggest states led by Republican governors, many of them in turn have tapped their own pools of local business support. Bush may well raise between $80 and $100 million—and he can legally spend all of it before the GOP convention next August. That would be double the amount raised by any other presidential candidate in history. And his ability to collect thousands of $1,000 checks during a primary suggests that he will garner an unprecedented number of $100,000 soft-money checks during a general election as well.

So get ready for the most lopsidedly expensive election ever. Bush leads his potential Democratic opponents in the polls today, but there is reason to expect that by next November the race will tighten. When it does, the money will matter. To be sure, if the Democrats have enough money to put their message across, that will be key. And in practice there is a limit to how many TV commercials any campaign or party can buy. But the ability to target voters with "persuasion" letters, solicitations from paid phone banks, sophisticated computerized identification of undecided voters, and other expensive means is virtually unlimited.

Even in the unlikely event that the Senate, in a spasm of remorse, were to pass campaign finance reform legislation, it wouldn't affect the 2000 contest. Reform bills always take effect after the next election—to avoid confused rules and to give nervous incumbents one last swig at the money bar before closing time.

Will the Democrats' goal of retaining the presidency—and of retaking the House or Senate—go up in a puff of dollar signs in 2000? Possibly. But they have a few—if dim—rays of hope.

For one thing, Republicans have in the past been known to squander their cash advantage. In 1998, for example, they used splashy ads to attack Clinton for the Lewinsky affair. "The bad publicity that they got over the misstep was far in excess of any benefit they got from the ad," Mark Penn, the pollster for both Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton (and, until last month, for Al Gore), told me.

Of course, it would take a lot of egregious misspending to blow $100 million; that possibility is a thin reed on which to hang Democrat hopes. Fortunately, the cash crunch is not as severe in the race for Congress. In fact, the conventional wisdom on K Street today is that there is a strong chance the Democrats will retake the House—thus political action committees and lobbyists are hedging their bets and giving to incumbents of both parties. Democratic campaign committees are running competitively with their Republican counterparts, in part because they, too, are now aggressively seeking soft money. And—based on polling data, anyway—Democratic candidates hold a commanding lead on major issues, from education to the Patients' Bill of Rights.

But there is a danger that despite overall financial parity in congressional races, Republicans will continue to be able to more effectively concentrate their financial firepower. In last year's 10 closest House races, the GOP outspent Democrats substantially. That handful of elections made the difference in control of the House.

Maybe the Democrats will be able to turn Bush's fundraising advantage to good use by tarring Bush as a candidate of wealthy special interests. Thus far, however, while Bush has been plagued by occasional questions about his hard-living past, the media has given him a free pass on his fundraising profligacy. When it comes to campaign finance, hypocrisy frequently gets hit, while flagrancy gets a free ride. In 1996 Clinton was treated more harshly by newspaper editorial pages for merely thinking about rejecting matching funds than Bush has been for actually rejecting matching funds in 1999. Indeed, Bush's cash hoard is seen as evidence of political prowess, not potential corruption. And so far, while Bill Bradley and John McCain—at this point Bush's only viable primary challenger—have made campaign finance reform a central campaign issue, Al Gore has not, probably because he worries that anytime he so much as whispers "McCain-Feingold," the GOP will shout "Buddhist temple."

Campaign finance rules are now more loophole than law. The Republicans continue to resist reform. Democratic party officials, meanwhile, have for years proffered an array of excuses for why they would not press hard for a change in the system. When I worked on the issue at the White House in the early days of the Clinton administration, congressional operatives sternly warned me, "If we pass reform, we'll lose the House." A few months later, after the Democrats had lost the House, I was warned again. "If we pass reform, we'll never win back the House."

Maybe if Bush wins the 2000 presidential election by dint of his superior financial resources, the presidency will be seen to have been bought—and the Democrats might finally be persuaded to make a sustained and principled crusade out of reform. In the meantime, they had better keep fundraising.


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