Monday, November 26, 2007

Election '08 Could Top $5 Billion

Al Hunt traces the likely scenario of campaign spending for federal elections next year, over at Bloomberg. We're looking at a likely $5 billion gusher:

``Money,'' Jesse Unruh, the late speaker of the California State Assembly, once famously declared, ``is the mother's milk of politics.''

In 2008, America's cholesterol will be off the charts.

Spending for the national campaigns, presidential and congressional, will top $5 billion, as many of the Watergate-era reforms -- public financing of presidential elections and limits on expenditures -- vanish.

The U.S. spends more per capita on these elections than any other industrialized nation, with the exception of Japan and sometimes Israel. The benefits are dubious.

``It isn't clear that we have any comparative advantage from all this freedom to spend money,'' says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who has researched and published a book on money and politics in major democracies.

Voter turnout is lower in the U.S. than in other major countries, and it's difficult to argue that Americans are better informed. The most expensive campaigns are often the most negative and depress voter interest.

The current election cycle will look like this: The Republican and Democratic nominees combined will spend more than $1 billion by next November; other presidential hopefuls will fork over another $400 million; congressional candidates can be counted on to spend in excess of $1.5 billion, and the various Democratic and Republican party committees will part with more money than that.

Throw in at least half a billion from so-called ``independent'' groups outside the campaigns and, bingo, you've topped $5 billion. (If billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, self-finances an independent bid, add as much as 20 percent more.)
This produces what longtime campaign reformer Fred Wertheimer calls ``an arms race'' in spending: ``Reality disappears, paranoia reigns as you just try to top the other guy.''

The presidential primaries this time are a case study. As the leading contenders shun public money and restrictions on expenditures in each state, the lid has come off. In Iowa, the scene of the first contest, there are reports that both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might spend as much as $15 million apiece; both camps say it depends on what the other shells out.

Overall, the Democratic presidential aspirants may spend as much as $45 million in that small state. The best estimates are that 150,000 Hawkeye state Democrats will turn out for the caucuses on the cold January night. That would amount to about $300 a vote.

This is an interesting article. Hunt's not clear as to changes or solutions. He does make a roundabound case for campaign finance reform, at least by making the case that elections in the post-1974 reform era have been among "the cleanest in modern history."
Hunt's right to point out that new techniques like campaign bundling have brought out the shady types, like Norman Hsu. We should catch the crooks and move on.

Realize that the record amounts pumped into the political system count as a gauge to the health of the democracy. People vote with their pocketbooks. Even the average laborer can kick in 50 or 100 bucks to the candidate of their choice. Note too how Hunt argues that the goal of limiting large donors has been met under McCain-Feingold. He's left to lament that the money-men always find new regulatory loopholes to exploit.

As I noted in
a previous post on campaign finance:
Certainly there's a case to be made for eliminating exclusive backroom deals and corporate deep-pocket backing for America's political leaders. But as any student of campaign finance knows, money in politics is like the winding waters of a raging river. Should a dead log block the river's passage, the water finds a way to continue its flow, up, over, and around the impediment. So it goes with money. The McCain-Feingold reform act of 2002 is largely responsible for making the current crop of bundlers so powerful. The law has also made interest group 527 organizations (a regular target of criticism) powerful producers of campaign advertising. Who knows what consequences will flow from the next round of "progressive" campaign finance reforms?
I say let the money flow in 2008. Crack down on the scofflaws while encouraging average folks to kick in some bucks. It's going to be a great electoral year. Big money and big, healthy democracy.