Campaign finance reform reduces while 2008 presidential candidates’ spending soars

October 31, 2008

by Lance Traweek

According to USnews.com, the total spending by all presidential candidates from 1996 was $239.9 million; then there was an increase in 2000 to $343.1 million, and in 2004 it rose to $717.9 million.

In more recent news, CNN.com said Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have already surpassed $1 billion and are expected to peak at $2 billion by election day.

The U.S. Constitution states there are only three requirements to be eligible to run for president.

It says one must be a “natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years prior to taking office.”

However, according to the 11th edition book of Understanding American Government by Susan Welch, presidential candidates need to have at least $100 million in their “back pocket” to even be considered a serious contender in the primaries.

The book also said the hidden job of any prospective president is the title, “chief fundraiser.”

Tip O’ Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said there are four parts to any campaign: the candidate, the issues, the campaign organization and money.

“Without money you can forget the other three,” O’ Neill said.

Richard Hutchinson, an assistant professor of sociology, said he agrees with O’ Neill’s claim.

“Just as a car won’t run without gas in the tank, a campaign won’t run without money in the bank,” Hutchinson said. “American politics have long been more expensive and arguably more corrupt than [any] other comparable representative democracy.”

Hutchinson said the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1976 case Buckley vs. Vallejo, ruled that campaign donations are political [free] speech, protected by the First Amendment.

“All campaign finance reform efforts are challenged in court, usually by Republican interests, and often succeed,” Hutchinson said. “Under the current rules, there is a limit on how much an individual can contribute to a campaign, but independent groups can run ‘issue ads’ that help the parties and their candidates.”

He said the “Swiftboat Vets” are the best-known example of this type of group and they helped re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004.

“Historically the [Republicans] have enjoyed a big advantage in money, having more wealthy donors than the Democrats, [but] since 2004 that has shifted as the Democrats have successfully tapped huge numbers of ordinary people and small donations using the Internet,” Hutchinson said. “It is quite ironic that the GOP now complains about being outspent!”

According to CNN.com, Obama outspent McCain eight to one last month.

“Money talks because the wealthy have disproportionate influence on the political system, even pluralists agree,” Hutchinson said. “They use this influence to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest of us.”

He said serious reform will only be possible if [America] arrives at a major “New New Deal,” perhaps as a consequence of a sweeping reform of the financial system.

“If we’re cleaning up Wall Street, why not clean up the undue influence of the wealthy on the political process while we’re at it,” Hutchinson said.

Jason Pigg, an associate professor of political science, said political scientists have found it is not necessarily the candidate with the most money who wins, but that in order to be competitive you do need to raise a sufficient amount of money to be credible.

“The present system is not perfect, but in many ways it is the least corrupt campaign finance system that we have ever had,” Pigg said. “In the past, it was common for wealthy individuals and corporations to give massive amounts of money directly to a candidate’s campaign, raising issues of whether this was democratic.”

Pigg said presently, an individual can only give up to $2,300 to a presidential campaign, and “soft money” contributions to political parties by individuals and corporations that were once unregulated are now limited.

“So, while there has been a huge amount of money raised during this campaign, it has been done so within a system that is much stricter than in the past,” Pigg said. “A bigger concern for many people is that even within this system, you find the same type of people contributing money that you find voting, campaigning, participating in public events and so on.”

Pigg said politicians thus often have more of an incentive to respond to the wealthier and better educated, since these are the groups that are more likely to vote, contribute and participate in interest groups.

Ainsley Moore, a sophomore nutrition major, said she has been keeping up with this year’s presidential election and thinks it has gotten out of control.

“It seems like money has put too much emphasis on fancy suits and shiny confetti,” Moore said. “With the economy currently like it is, I cannot understand why their campaign money is not going to better use.”

She said she thinks there needs to be some serious finance reform within presidential campaigns.

Moore said, “Money is having way too much of an impact on a government all across the board.”