The Democratic convention won't be held for more than a year, but the party's nominee for the 2004 presidential race is being selected right now, in a handful of living rooms and salons in Georgetown, the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Hollywood. That's where the ''wealth primary'' -- the quadrennial dance between fund-raisers and fat cats -- is taking place, a competition that determines who will be anointed the party's front-runner and what issues will make it onto the table.
The public may be unaware of the process, but campaigns take the wealth primary very seriously. And they should. In every presidential race since 1984, the candidate who had raised the most money by the end of the year prior to the election -- before a single primary vote had been cast -- went on to win his party's nomination.
Just listen to one top Democratic fund-raiser with extensive experience in presidential campaigns, who spoke recently on condition of anonymity: ''The only focus in presidential campaigns right now is how to get $20 million to $25 million raised by the fall.'' That's the equivalent of raising $60,000 a day, seven days a week, for all of 2003.
Meanwhile, the front-loading of the primary calendar -- with many big states expected to hold elections just a few weeks after the traditional first battlegrounds of Iowa and New Hampshire -- is forcing campaigns to put their bankrolls together sooner. Candidates know the press is going to pay close attention to only the leading money-raisers, and if they can't get media attention, they can't raise additional money.
The first turning point in this invisible dash for cash has just occurred, and the ''votes'' have been tallied. On April 15, the candidates reported to the Federal Election Commission on their fund-raising for the first quarter of 2003.
Here's how much they've raised so far, according to their filings:
• North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: $7.4 million (plus $1.4 million sitting in his Senate campaign account that he has not yet tapped).
• Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry: $7 million (plus $3 million transferred from his Senate account).
• Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt: $3.5 million (plus $2.4 million transferred from his House account).
• Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman: $3 million.
• Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean: $2.6 million.
• Florida Sen. Bob Graham: $1.1 million.
• Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich: $180,000.
• Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun: $72,000.
''This is when the winnowing of the field will start,'' our fund-raiser friend reports. ''It's assumed that serious candidates will need to have raised $6 million to $10 million.'' By that yardstick, Lieberman and Graham might be in trouble, though both say their totals were hindered by late starts and claim they will soon close the gap. Dean is also still a long shot, if money is the measure.
Most important to candidates' success in this system is how they recruit and mobilize donors who ''bundle'' contributions -- people who can pull together large stacks of $2,000 checks from their co-workers, friends and family. For example, in 2000, the top donor to President Bush's presidential campaign was MBNA Corp., a Delaware-based bank. MBNA's executives, their families and its political action committee gave him nearly $240,700. Though MBNA Chief Executive Charles Cawley and his wife, Julie, personally gave a total of $2,000 to Bush (the limit then was $1,000 per contributor per election), Cawley was a Bush ''Pioneer,'' one of the volunteer fund-raisers who pulled in at least $100,000 apiece for the campaign. In 2004, Bush operatives are hinting that the bar for ranking as a Pioneer will
be raised to $200,000 or higher.
So far, each of the top four Democratic candidates has raised more than 60 percent of his cash from those giving $2,000 or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's why they're spending so much time in New York, Los Angeles and Washington -- donors from just 10 ZIP Codes in those three cities supplied more than $122.5 million to federal campaigns last year. Donors at the lower end of the spectrum count for little in this process. And the 96 percent of Americans who never give a campaign contribution count for nothing.
This is no way to select the next leader of a democracy. The only way to get rid of the wealth primary is a voluntary system of full public financing in both the primary and general elections for qualified candidates who demonstrate a broad base of support among average voters. The existing, outmoded funding system now used must be replaced. Lawmakers would do well to take a page from the success of ''Clean Money, Clean Elections'' systems in Arizona and Maine, where more than half the candidates for state office -- including the current governor of Arizona -- participated in a public funding option that freed them from any postelection obligations to major donors and the special interests they represent.
Under this approach, candidates who agree to abide by strict spending limits and to raise no private money can qualify for a grant of public funds for their campaigns. That funding level is based on what it cost to run a competitive race for that level of office in previous cycles. If participating candidates are opposed by big-spending, privately financed opponents, or targeted by independent expenditures, they can receive additional public matching funds -- up to a limit. First, they have to raise a large number of very small qualifying contributions from voters in their district.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who won election last November, had to collect contributions of $5 from at least 4,000 state voters to get about $400,000 for her primary race and a little more than $600,000 for the general election. She ultimately received an additional $1.3 million in public funds to match spending by her opponent and his allies.
This approach reverses the dependence of candidates on relatively few large donors. It wouldn't be that complicated to apply it to the presidential campaign, as we already have full public financing for the general election. The biggest change would be in how candidates get public funds for the primaries. Today, once a candidate raises at least $5,000 in small contributions from at least 20 states, he or she gets a dollar-for-dollar match for the first $250 collected from any given donor.
Under a Clean Money, Clean Elections system, candidates would qualify by collecting a qualifying -- and quite large -- number of contributions. The amount given could be as little as, say, $5, replacing an emphasis on the amount collected with an emphasis on numbers of people participating. Once candidates qualified, they could keep getting additional public funds up to the primary spending limit as long as they kept competing in primaries and got at least 10 percent of the vote.
Instead of the wealth primary and the bundling of $2,000 checks, candidates would be required to show broad and deep support from individuals -- not wealthy special interests. Such a system would reduce the time candidates spend fund-raising so they could focus on voters and issues. It would create equal opportunity among candidates able to collect large checks from wealthy donors and those with large numbers of supporters of only average means. And it would encourage more citizens to get involved in the democratic process of electing the president, reducing the obscene dependence of future presidents on a tiny core of the wealthiest Americans. It's time to take the ''for sale'' sign off the White House.
Nick Nyhart is executive director of Public Campaign. Joan Claybrook is president of Public Citizen.
©2003 The Los Angeles Times