Spending on '04 presidential race might reach $1 billion

Biggest private donors replace soft money as party mainstays

Election 2004

July 21, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The amount of cash bankrolling the two presidential campaigns this year is approaching and might well exceed $1 billion - an eye-popping number that has shattered any hope that recent campaign finance reform would put a brake on spending.

Alone, President Bush and Democrat John Kerry will, by this summer, have raised at least $565 million, according to new figures released by the government and the campaigns yesterday.

That includes $230 million for Bush (a record in the history of presidential campaigns), $185 million for Kerry (an all-time Democratic Party record) and $150 million - $75 million for each candidate - from the federal government to spend after the nominating conventions.

Those figures do not include the more than $340 million raked in by the two national parties so far.

The parties can spend their funds on any races, but they are likely to use substantial amounts to support Bush and Kerry, given the nail-biter of a race the two are in. Both parties are expected to raise millions more before voters hit the polls.

Beyond all that money, hundreds of outside advocacy groups - from left-leaning MoveOn.org to the conservative Club for Growth - have raised an additional $150 million, much of which they are using to back either Kerry or Bush.

A large amount of the money raised so far already is being spent waging campaign warfare in 17 battleground states that were closely contested in 2000, from Iowa to West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In contrast to Maryland, regarded as safely Democratic, the campaigns in battleground states are running on such high octane, the airwaves are so full of campaign back-and-forth, that it might feel to voters as if it's already late October.

When the money from all sources is combined, $1 billion spent to run for president this year does not seem out of the question.

"These are big numbers with a lot of zeroes," said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

McCain-Feingold

He said anyone who thought the McCain-Feingold law, which overhauled the campaign finance system, would reduce the soaring amounts of money funding presidential campaigns was completely wrong.

"McCain-Feingold was not about limiting the amount of money in politics," he said. "It was about building a real wall between big soft-money donors and the political parties." (Soft money was unlimited cash donated to parties by unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.)

Campaign finance analysts have mixed reactions to the prolific fund-raising this year.

On the one hand, they say, campaign finance reform means less money is flowing in from political action committees and more money is coming from average individuals, meaning that special interests might hold less sway than in prior years.

But the huge amount of cash being raised and spent means big-time individual donors have hardly lost all of their importance.

With laws preventing parties from soliciting unlimited "soft-money" donations, parties and the candidates have turned to private donors who "bundle" smaller donations from people who share their cause.

"And if I am a big-time donor to Bush or Kerry, I am most likely working in an industry where my agenda conflicts with the public's interest," said Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause.

`Swimming in cash'

Wexler said she is pleased, though, that "this has been the year of the individual donor."

"If I am giving $35 to a candidate, I'm not expecting a special favor and I'm not going to get it," Wexler said. "But are we swimming in cash this year? Yes."

In 2000, Bush raised $193 million, Al Gore raised $132 million and the two candidates received about $150 million in federal funds. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee raised a total of $140 million and the Democratic National Committee raised $108 million. The total of soft money raised for the full year totaled $159 million.

So altogether, $882 million was raised four years ago, but some of the party funds and soft money were spent on candidates in other races.

The Bush and Kerry campaigns have already spent much of what they amassed in their own coffers on advertising and grass-roots organizing, but they still are expected to have millions sitting in the bank after emerging from their respective conventions.

At that point, Bush and Kerry are expected to each accept $75 million in federal funding to spend on the general campaign, a decision that will bar them from spending the remaining money they earned on their own.

But they can donate the remaining money to the party committees or congressional candidates, who can then help the presidential contenders by running ads on their behalf and paying for get-out-the-vote drives.

Especially in a close race, how, to whom and in what states Bush and Kerry distribute their cash could help decide the election.

Party spending

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