Adam Ash

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

US Diary: it's great that Obama raised $25m for his campaign, but the whole campaign finance thing really sucks

1. The true cost of campaigning
Boston Globe editorial

SENATOR Barack Obama's $25 million "call" yesterday qualifies him for another round at the presidential poker table. But the $129 million total pot raised by all the presidential candidates in the first quarter illustrates how morally and politically bankrupt the game is.

Candidates bow down to big contributors, often with bad results for the general public when those candidates win. Beyond that, they spend far too much time chasing dollars and not talking with citizens or advancing the policies they have promised.

Do contributions corrupt policy? Few would answer no. Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency should be regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Candidate George Bush promised in 2000 to have the EPA do just that -- and the voters were pleased. But President Bush reversed himself a year later, putting such emissions off-limits for the EPA. Big oil and other corporate interests, which had contributed heavily to Bush's campaign, were more than pleased by the change; they took it to the bank. Six years were lost in the fight against global warming.

As for the time spent fund-raising, officeholders complain more and more frequently, and with good reason. Just consider: Suppose a presidential candidate could raise $1,000 with a two -minute phone call, consistently. To raise $25 million in three months, he or she would have to stay on the phone for 50,000 minutes or -- assuming an eight -hour day (no lunch), a seven -day week, and no rejections -- 104 days. But wait: there were only 90 days in the first quarter. The point is clear: the current system exhausts as it corrupts.

The most sensible alternative is public financing, which was successful in presidential campaigns for three elections after Watergate, but has slid into disuse as candidates' budgets have ballooned. It is too late to enact reforms for the 2008 election, but a coordinated effort should be mounted to reclaim these campaigns, and candidates, for the people in 2012.

Meanwhile, the good news out of Congress is that support is growing for public financing for congressional elections. Two Senate powerhouses, majority whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, have filed legislation for a voluntary system in which small contributions would be matched with public money. A similar proposal in the House, filed for 10 years by Representative John Tierney of Salem, is suddenly enjoying growing support. Both proposals are patterned after the successful Clean Elections systems in Maine and Arizona.

Voters pay for elections one way or another. Better that the price should be from tax dollars than corrupt policies and wasted officeholders.

2. Obama is a close 2d with $25m
By Susan Milligan/Boston Globe

Senator Barack Obama announced yesterday that he had raised more than $25 million for his presidential campaign in the first three months of this year, putting the first-term senator from Illinois in close competition with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and undercutting Clinton's effort to establish herself as the inevitable Democratic nominee.

Obama's first-quarter take for 2007 nearly matches the $26 million Clinton said she raised in the same period. Obama also disclosed that his campaign attracted cash from twice as many people as Clinton's, drawing donations from 100,000 supporters, compared with 50,000 who gave to the wife of a former president .

While money does not necessarily transfer into votes, it is one indicator of how much interest a candidate is generating among likely primary election voters. Obama's totals not only show him to be a serious contender, but reveal a weakness on the part of Clinton, who now faces a formidable challenge from a lesser-known and less experienced colleague despite her high name recognition and solid fund-raising skills.

Obama's supporters were delighted with his financial showing and the number of contributors.

"I think her strategy rested almost entirely on the assumption that her nomination was inevitable because of her financial support and her endorsements from big players" in the party, said Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic party and an Obama supporter.

"Barack Obama has run a classic grass-roots campaign from the beginning. This extraordinary support from an extraordinary number of people is even more telling than the number of dollars itself," Johnston said.

Clinton's campaign played down any competition between the two leading candidates, saying all of the contenders' fund-raising displayed an energized Democratic electorate for the campaign. Democratic presidential contenders as a group have raised substantially more money than the GOP candidates.

"We are thrilled with our historic fund-raising success and congratulate Senator Obama and the entire Democratic field on their fund-raising, which demonstrates the overwhelming desire for change in our country," Clinton's campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, said in a statement.

John Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, has raised more than $14 million. The top three GOP candidates have raised a total of $47.5 million so far, while the leading three Democrats have collected a total of $65.5 million.

Obama's camp reported substantial success with Internet fund-raising, taking in $6.9 million from 50,000 donors. Clinton raised $4.2 million from the Internet, and Edwards pulled in $3.3 million from the electronic contributions.

Obama also disclosed that a full $23.5 million of the money he raised is eligible for use in the primary campaign. Candidates are allowed to raise money for the general election now -- and Clinton has been aggressively soliciting both primary and general election cash -- but they cannot spend the general election money on the primary contest .

Clinton has not disclosed how much of her donations were raised for the general election; neither candidate has announced how much of the money each has already spent, facts that must be included in Federal Election Commission reports due April 15.

The 2008 campaign is shaping up as the most expensive in history, and the heavy fund-raising by candidates in both parties has campaign finance specialists worried that money will winnow the field before voters have a chance to evaluate the contenders. Financial woes alone recently forced former governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa out of the race.

"It's having the effect of intimidating the 'minor' candidates," said Steven Weissman , associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending. "It will thin out the field before anyone has voted at all."

Clinton is leading the Democratic field in many national and statewide polls, suggesting that her record-breaking first-quarter fund-raising is rooted in a solid base of voter support. She also has $10 million she transferred from her Senate reelection campaign chest.

Obama is not as well-known as Clinton and is far less experienced in running a national campaign or raising money. Clinton is not only a stellar fund-raiser, but her husband, Bill Clinton, is perhaps his party's most effective fund-raiser. Those advantages should have put Senator Clinton well ahead of her challengers in the early part of the campaign, some political analysts said, and the fact that Obama was able to close in on her is a troubling sign for her.

For Obama's fund-raising to come "up against Bill Clinton and the Clinton machine" shows that "it's not a lock" for the New York senator, said Lee Miringoff , director of the nonpartisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Clinton has sought to define herself as the de facto nominee, collecting high-profile endorsements and hiring some of the party's most prominent campaign strategists. Obama's ability to draw a massive amount of money from a large number of supporters suggests that many Democrats are looking seriously at alternatives to Clinton.

"This is not going to be a coronation. This is not going to be a given" that the prominent New York lawmaker will get the Democratic nomination next year, said Lamelle McMorris , a Democratic strategist backing Obama.

"This is not a situation where everybody owes the Clintons something" and that will translate into support for her, McMorris said. "It's not that kind of deal. People are looking for another option."

Early fund-raising success, however, does not necessarily guarantee the nomination, campaign finance specialists note. For example, former Texas senator Phil Gramm was the leading fund-raiser at this stage in 1995, but pulled out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination days before the 1996 New Hampshire primary because of lack of support. In 2003, Edwards was ahead in the cash race, but lost the Democratic nomination to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

And while Obama appears to be generating early excitement among voters, he may burn out later on and lose to a candidate considered more electable in the general election -- much as former governor Howard Dean of Vermont saw his support dwindle in 2004, said Costas Panagopoulos , a campaign and elections specialist at Fordham University.

The American public is sympathetic to these kinds of maverick candidates, to new faces," Panagopoulos said. "They flirt with a lot of candidates, but it's not clear who they will eventually marry."


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