The green monster

July 27, 2004|By Michael J. Goff

MONEY'S DECISIVE role in the 2004 presidential nomination campaign caps a trend that dates to the 1980s and is surely one of the most regrettable features of American politics today.

As the Democratic and Republican national conventions bring the nomination campaign to its official close, the impact of money on voters' choices this November is clearer than ever.

Money certainly was the first priority of the 10 announced Democratic contenders, long before they announced their candidacies. It also was the key factor in early candidate and would-be candidate withdrawals during the primaries and caucuses.

Money was the indicator of candidate strength that the media trumpeted most frequently as they evaluated and handicapped the candidates during the long 2003 pre-election year. In fact, Howard Dean's emergence in the media as the "clear front-runner" and even the "presumptive nominee" was based almost entirely on his phenomenal fund-raising success.

And Sen. John Kerry's instantaneous rise to become the new front-runner in February in large measure was the result of his status as this year's No. 2 Democratic fund-raiser as well as the immense personal wealth his campaign was able to draw upon.

Quite strikingly, in each presidential race since 1988, a new high-water mark has been set in money's role in presidential campaigns and in the Federal Election Commission's ineffectiveness in regulating it. That year was dramatic, with fund raising by presidential candidates through pre-candidacy political action committees becoming the norm rather than the exception.

In 1992, the precedent for using enormous personal wealth to self-fund a presidential campaign was established with the surprisingly competitive independent candidacy of Ross Perot. He was the first presidential candidate of note since the enactment of campaign finance reform in the 1970s to decline federal matching funds in order to be free to tap personal assets without limitation.

Millionaire Steve Forbes carried this approach to the nomination campaign of 1996, declining federal matching funds in order to fund his own quest for the Republican presidential nomination.

It was George W. Bush, running for the GOP nomination in 2000, who decided to decline federal matching funds for a new reason: to be free of any limitation on the total he could raise from contributors in the nomination campaign and to be free of state-by-state as well as overall spending ceilings. His strategy drove most of the Republican candidates from the nomination race even before the primaries and caucuses began, making his nomination unstoppable.

On the Democratic side, Dr. Dean emulated Mr. Bush's 2000 decision to decline federal matching funds. Within days, Mr. Kerry responded in kind, a make-or-break decision that marked the beginning of his emergence as an "electable" candidate, the only viable alternative to Dr. Dean.

Mr. Bush's campaign also has established a new standard for the importance of money in presidential politics.

By raising a war chest of more than $100 million before the opening primaries and caucuses and of over $226 million by June, even in a nomination campaign in which he had no opposition, Mr. Bush has institutionalized the necessity for presidential candidates to raise and spend record-setting amounts for use during the nomination campaign.

Mr. Bush's objective clearly was to raise and spend as much as possible prior to the national party conventions, when both party presidential nominees become eligible for full federal funding of their campaigns; they also become subject to campaign spending ceilings.

The impact of money in presidential nomination politics and the monumental influence it gives to financial elites has effectively turned the presidential nomination reforms introduced in 1972 and thereafter on their head. While the influence of political elites was temporarily dispersed by these reforms - at least in 1972 and 1976 - since 1980 and especially since 1988, the trend has been back toward less popular influence and more elite control in the selection of presidential nominees.

Regrettably, circumventing the campaign finance reform framework will be the new litmus test for a credible presidential nomination candidacy. And an early start to the general campaign, using extraordinary sums of money, is likely to be the only winning strategy for a competitive election contest in the future.

The real story of the 2004 campaign is the continued dismantling of the presidential nomination reforms of the 1970s, especially with respect to campaign finance reform. As a result, now more than ever, it is money - not votes - that counts most in the selection of major party presidential nominees.

A candidate's ability to succeed outside the campaign finance reform framework has become the new standard for candidate success, both in seeking the nomination and in proving electability in the general election campaign that follows.

Michael J. Goff, vice president for development and college relations at Loyola College, is the author of The Money Primary.

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