Year of the invisible primary

Sun Journal

Money: Political contributors vote with their dollars long before the rest of us vote at the ballot box.

August 08, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Behind the money madness afflicting the current crop of presidential candidates lies a very compelling fact.

Over the last four elections -- 1996, 1992, 1988 and 1984 -- the men who raised the most money in the year before the primaries became the presidential nominees.

The competition for early contributions, often described as an "invisible primary," has in some ways become the most influential contest of all.

"The year of the invisible primary is a year in which candidates are made and unmade," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Four years ago, the political world was dazzled by the early fund-raising prowess of a Republican presidential aspirant from Texas named Phil Gramm. On the night he scooped up $4.1 million for his campaign, a record for a single event, Gramm famously boasted: "I have the most reliable friend you can have in American politics, and that is ready money."

Before the year was out, though, his "friend" had started to desert Gramm. Instead, it was Bob Dole who grabbed the most money that year, and went on to the nomination.

This time, the money magnetism of another Texas Republican, Gov. George W. Bush, has made him the man to beat. Bush has effectively won the "invisible primary" already, raising more funds in four months than any previous candidate collected over an entire two-year election cycle.

A leading Bush fund-raiser contends that dollars themselves do not produce a nominee. Rather, successful candidates have "raised the most money because they are the best candidates, and people voted with their pocketbooks before they voted at the ballot box," says Shelly Kamins, a Potomac developer and Bush "Pioneer," an elite group of 115 solicitors who have collected $100,000 or more for the Texan's campaign.

Mann agrees there is little evidence to suggest that a candidate wins the nomination because he has the most money.

"It's an indicator of the strength of the candidacy, rather than a source of the strength," he says. "Money flows more readily to candidates seen as the likely nominee."

Of course, there is often a question of which comes first: having the ability to raise big bucks or having the aura of a winner. In Bush's case, his facility for attracting millions in campaign cash was one reason why the Republican establishment lined up early behind his candidacy.

But there is little debate about the power of money in politics. At any level, a fat bank account provides an overwhelming edge.

In 1998 races for the House and Senate, the candidate who raised the most money won more than 95 percent of the time, according to Federal Election Commission figures. A 1995 study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that a challenger in a congressional contest who spent less than $250,000 had only a 1 in 100 chance of winning.

While money correlates closely with success in presidential nominations, it plays a less decisive role in the November elections. Presidential elections are the only federal races that are publicly financed, a fact that theoretically provides a level playing field.

But presidential candidates now effectively evade those limits, raising tens of millions of dollars in unregulated "soft money," which is used to promote their campaigns. In 1996, President Clinton won re-election despite being outspent by Dole, for a variety of reasons having little to do with fund-raising ability.

This year, the presidential candidates have already raised more than $103 million. That is nearly twice the record amount the '96 contenders raised at a comparable stage of the contest four years ago.

At least three factors are fueling this intense money hunt: Outmoded campaign laws. The limits on contributions have not been changed since the 1970s. Because of inflation, the $1,000 ceiling on individual donations is worth less than $350 in today's dollars.

Rising costs. The largest single expense for presidential campaigns is television ad time, which consumes more than half of campaign budgets. Republican contender Steve Forbes, who is using his personal fortune to finance his candidacy, has already launched TV and radio ads estimated to cost $10 million.

Front-loading. The primary calendar has been compressed, with the vast majority of delegates to be selected by the end of March, giving the candidates little time to raise money later. Fund-raising experts have said it will take at least $20 million to compete effectively in next year's primaries.

"You have to start that much earlier to raise that much money at $1,000 a clip," says Scott Cottington, a Republican campaign consultant.

Raising political money is a momentum game. Ideally, it starts with an early influx of cash, which generates positive attention and encouraging poll numbers, which can then be used to solicit additional funds.

In the early jockeying for advantage in the 2000 presidential contest, however, the money chase has become the campaign.

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