Published on Tuesday, November 7, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Back-Door Donations Shatter All Spending Records
The cost: "Soft money" means bottomless party warchests
by Michael Ellison and Martin Kettle
The cost of electing George W Bush or Al Gore today as president of the United States comes to a record of almost a third of a billion dollars - and that is without taking into account millions more in "soft-money" contributions that are unregulated and hard to track.
Mr Bush has raised $187m (£130m) for his Republican campaign, all but $20m of it spent by a fortnight ago. Mr Gore raised $133m (£92m) for his Democratic campaign, and Ralph Nader of the Green Party raised $6m (£4m), according to the latest official figures.
The Republican national commitee has raised another $214m on top of that and the Democrats $179m in unregulated "soft money" which was spent across a range of campaigns for president, congressional and local state elections.
"The growing role of money in the political system is a growing problem, yes," said Douglas Webber of the non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics, a research group that monitors contributions to candidates.
"There's just been this constant downpour of money running all over the political process this year. This election will go down as the most expensive by far."
Mr Gore has said that a campaign finance reform bill will be the first thing he signs if he wins and some senior Republicans have said that they, too, will pursue this matter. The most influential of these is John McCain, Mr Bush's defeated opponent for the Republican nomination to run for the presidency.
"The issue has had enough attention in this campaign that it's safe to assume that there will be some attempt for a change, no matter who wins," said Mr Webber. "Several members of Congress will bring this up."
Combined spending on the presidential and congressional elections is put at $3bn and on the state contests at another $1bn. Taken together this is an increase of nearly 50% on the 1996 elections in America.
Mr Bush raised an unprecedented $100m for his primaries campaign alone; in the much more obscure contest for a New Jersey seat in the US Senate, Jon Corzine, a former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has spent $60m of his own money.
Congressional candidates are limited to donations of $1m maximum from individuals and $5,000 from political committees. But the rules are side-stepped by setting up "soft money" committees.
These shell organisations accept funds from corporations, trade unions and the wealthy and spend it on advertising and canvassing on behalf of candidates.
Mr Gore and Mr Bush have each accepted $67.6m in public funding, supposedly in return for refraining from raising money for their campaigns. Unrestricted "soft money" now exceeds those sums to such an extent that the parties and outside groups can spend more than the candidates.
The Republican party spent $36m on television advertising in support of Mr Bush in five months to the end of October compared with $28m spent by the candidate's campaign, says a study by the Brennan Centre at New York University.
The Democratic party spent $31m, and oustide groups $9m, on advertisements backing Mr Gore in that period, against his campaign's $21m.
"The outstanding development this cycle is that this is the first election in which non-candidate spending in close races for the House of Representatives, Senate and presidency will exceed spending by the candidates," said Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute.
Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said: "We haven't seen an election like this since 1972 in terms of the effectively unlimited amounts of money being spent."
Corporations have been prevented for almost 100 years from making direct political contributions but devices are used to get around the federal spending limits, a development attributed most recently to President Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Fred Wertheimer of another monitoring group, Democracy 21, said: "All the fig leaves have disappeared in this election. There is such a sense now that anything goes that people aren't even looking for cover in terms of massive use of unlimited, unregulated funds.
"If you look at 2000 in comparison with other years, campaign records are being shattered everywhere. Not broken but shattered."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000