As the most expensive Senate race in the country ($63.4 million raised by all candidates as of September 20), the New York contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton
and Republican Representative Rick Lazio is drawing almost as much attention as the presidential campaign. Lazio made news by challenging Clinton, in the midst of their first televised debate, to agree to an immediate ban on using soft money--the large chunks of unregulated contributions that are funneled through parties or independent groups--to pay for their broadcast ads. After much to-ing and fro-ing, Clinton agreed, setting off a wave of copycat gestures. Al Gore renewed his pledge to renounce soft money if George W. Bush did, and software millionaire Maria Cantwell, the Democratic Senate nominee in Washington State, made a similar call in her race.
What's really going on here? It could be that politicians are starting to realize that voters do care about money in politics. In John McCain's campaign last spring, a slew of independent and Democratic voters crossed over to support the Republican maverick. And exit polls showed an average of 10 percent of Republican primary voters naming campaign finance reform as their number-one reason for voting--higher than those picking abortion or education. As Clinton and Lazio, and Gore and Bush, battle for the last few independent-minded voters who haven't made up their minds, the candidates' internal polls are undoubtedly showing something similar.
Here's one intriguing indication of how the money issue is playing. Last May the New York Working Families Party, a new progressive organization closely aligned with labor and community groups, was looking for ways to attract swing voters outside of New York City to vote for Hillary Clinton on their ballot line. The poll they commissioned, by the Global Strategy Group, surveyed upstate and suburban voters who were not regular Republicans--in other words, the very swing group of independents and wavering Democrats who may decide this fall's contest. Forty-four percent of this group agreed that neither Democrats nor Republicans were doing a good job "reducing the political influence of the big-money special interests through campaign finance reform." Clearly, being seen as the "reform" candidate can pay political dividends.
The new politics of soft money is full of traps and snares. Much of the commentary about the Clinton-Lazio deal implies that the rest of the money being raised is somehow clean and limited. In fact, so far, Clinton has raised $21.7 million in hard money (plus another $4.4 million for her New York Senate 2000 soft money committee); Lazio has raised $17.8 million in hard dollars and little to none in soft. They share several top donors in common: Executives and employees of the finance giants Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and AXA Financial are each among Clinton and Lazio's top 10 contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Overall, five-sixths of all the money in this election year will come in the form of "hard money" given by a tiny pool of donors, most of whom have special economic interests at work.
The deal Clinton and Lazio agreed to--which may well fall apart before election day--is hardly a complete soft money ban. Both candidates are continuing to raise soft money for their respective party committees--which means big donors will still be able to curry favor with their $100,000 checks. Both have called on independent groups supporting them to stop running ads, but if any group does not, the deal allows the other side to respond in kind. And soft money can continue to be spent (and presumably raised) by the party committees on phone banks, direct mail, and get-out-the-vote efforts for each candidate.
The bottom line is, candidate-by-candidate, race-by-race agreements are inadequate. These gentleman's agreements, or handshakes, or pledges are no substitute for real systemic change in the financing of elections.