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Pay to Play

"The billion-dollar election." Get used to that phrase, because you'll be hearing it a lot over the next year and a half. That's the total that all candidates for the presidency are expected to spend on their campaigns between now and 2008. It's a staggering figure that critics will surely cite as evidence that money has thoroughly corrupted politics. Newt Gingrich shocked the bluenoses back in 1996 when he said that there was too little money in politics, not too much. The price tag this time around will be sure to give them apoplexy. Maybe, though, Gingrich had it right. Just why is a billion-dollar election such a bad thing?

It's plainly not the price tag alone that makes the billion-dollar election worrisome. Suppose, for instance, that some miracle made available a billion dollars in public money, half of it distributed in even amounts to all candidates who showed a base of support, and the rest used to pay for debates, voter guides, and non-partisan efforts to get new voters to the polls. It's hard to imagine anyone objecting to such an idea. After all, a billion dollars is the cost of five days of the Iraq war. It's not such an unreasonable amount to invest in the democratic decision-making process that will determine our next commander-in-chief.

What worries voters, though, is the thought that one candidate can far outspend his opponents, essentially buying the election. But the political graveyard is filled with people, often self-financed billionaires such as Pete Coors in Colorado or Al Checchi in California, who spent many times more than their opponents. What matters most in politics is not parity, but whether a candidate reaches a threshold of viability, and, in presidential elections, whether they can keep going through a series of bouts. In 1992, Democratic fundraiser Robert Farmer said, "People don't lose campaigns. They run out of money and can't get their planes in the air." So while a candidate like Hillary Clinton is sure to have a considerable fundraising advantage over her rivals, that doesn't necessarily translate into a competitive advantage. As scholars Don Green and Jon Krasno showed in 1988, if a candidate has enough to run a decent campaign and be heard, spending beyond the threshold has quickly diminishing returns.

So how much will it take to be viable in 2008? Let's take as a benchmark the amount John Kerry had raised by the end of 2003: $25 million. Taking into account inflation, the higher bar set this time around by Clinton (whose year-end goal is $60 million), and the compressed primary schedule (which will mean that candidates can no longer focus exclusively on New Hampshire as they have in the past), it's safe to assume that a major Democratic candidate will need to end this year having raised something like $40 million to compete in the earliest states. For the major Republican candidates, the threshold is probably about the same.

If it takes only $40 million to get in the race, then the field is wide open. Many candidates haven't formed presidential exploratory committees yet, so their fundraising records aren't available, but based on estimates from National Journal, among Democrats, Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama can guarantee it. Chris Dodd actually raised more money than any of them in the last quarter of 2006, and Bill Richardson raised $16 million for his two gubernatorial races combined in New Mexico, a huge sum in a small state. I suspect that they will be able to compete in the money game as well. If Joe Biden can convince people he's a serious candidate, he will have access to money too, as will Al Gore, if he joins the race. Even Dennis Kucinich--never one to doubt himself--has set the goal of raising $50 million this year

Among Republicans, the current frontrunners, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani, will unquestionably be able to compete. Since all of those candidates are in one way or another anathema to some on the right, it's hard to imagine that at least one traditional right-wing candidate won't emerge, and he would also have the money to run. Newt Gingrich, for example, would surely have no trouble tapping the funding base he developed for House candidates. The billion-dollar election is in part a function of having wide open nominating campaigns in both parties for the first time in decades, which is a good thing. More candidates means more money. Or, perhaps, more money means more candidates.

A billion-dollar election would also be worrisome if most of the money came from the same class of rent-seekers who give for no reason other than to gain influence or access. In the early 1990s, there were 59 corporate donors who gave more than $100,000 simultaneously to both parties, and four donors who appeared in the top ten list of both parties. Such a politics has a tendency to narrow the scope of issues as candidates and parties avoid offending the allies they share in the donor class, and such narrow politics in turn makes campaigns and candidates uninspiring to other potential donors.

There will still be plenty of that this cycle, of course, but probably less than in the past. Much of the new money in politics comes from people who care passionately about the direction of the country. The Republicans always had a base of ideological donors, but now Democrats do as well. And they are not all big donors; the percentage of individual contributions to Democratic presidential campaigns that came in units of $200 or less nearly doubled between 2000 and 2004, from 20 percent to 37 percent, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. The great innovation of the netroots is that it changed the cost of seeking a small contributions (e-mail, after all, is free). The Internet also makes it easier to raise money without the candidate's direct personal involvement, freeing the candidate to spend more time with voters or thinking about policy. The Financial Times reported last spring that, for her Senate reelection campaign, Clinton made no fundraising calls herself, relying entirely on a network of surrogates. Abundance has its advantages; when money is scarce candidates have to spend more of their own time chasing it, more time having to make promises to donors.

The idea of a billion-dollar election also leads to the thought that we'll get a billion dollars worth of whatever's most despicable in politics, particularly television attack ads. It is true that broadcast advertising usually accounts for about half of federal candidates' spending. Many of a campaign's costs--staff salaries, transportation, polling--are fixed, so TV, radio, and direct mail ads are often the place that money is spent when a candidate gets into an arms race. But the effectiveness of saturating the airwaves with ads does have a limit. For one thing, there's only so much broadcast time in the day. After a while, a wise campaign, with enough money to be somewhat visible on TV, would be better off spending the next dollar on something other than ads--such as field staff to get new voters to the polls.

For another, while I can't predict what the tone of the coming campaigns will be, there's no reason to believe that a more expensive election--even one in which more money is spent on ads--would be more vicious than a less expensive one. That's because outside groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth--not the candidates themselves--tend to produce the most negative ads. (This is in part because of the "I approve this message" statement that must conclude every ad from the candidate's campaign.) And if you count spending by outside groups, we crossed the billion-dollar mark in the last cycle. If the candidates themselves have more money this time around to speak for themselves, the result may very well be less mud slinging.

Of course, the billion-dollar election won't be a good-government nirvana, all civil debates and political equality. But there's no reason to believe it would be any worse than a quarter-billion-dollar election. And, in many ways, it might be a lot better.

By Mark Schmitt