Posted on July 05, 1999 in Washington Watch

With eight months remaining before the first presidential primary, the contest is as hot as the midsummer weather. The contest, however, is not about issues–although some issues are discussed. The battle is about money.

For months now, the 12 presidential candidates (10 Republicans and two Democrats) for the 2000 elections have been crisscrossing the United States and enlisting the support of key allies in the search for funds to run their campaigns.

It is true that the candidates have all made repeated visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, the scenes of the earliest 2000 contests, to organize campaigns and build support networks–but the real high energy activity that has occupied the time of the most serious campaigners has been fundraising.

If, as the analysts say, the first primary is the race for money, than as of last week, the early returns are now in.

In order to comply with U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) laws, all candidates for national office must file reports on income and expenses every three months.

The second quarter reports for 1999 were due on June 30 and the results were quite startling. Already over $100 million has been raised by the 12 candidates, with George W. Bush, Republican Governor of Texas, accounting for a staggering $36 million. His nearest Republican competitor was Arizona Senator John McCain ($6.1 million) followed by Gary Bauer, Elizabeth Dole and former Vice President Dan Quayle who have each raised about $3.3 million.

On the Democratic side, as expected, Vice President Al Gore leads with almost $20 million. His only competitor, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, has raised about $12 million.

Bush’s huge fundraising lead drew extensive positive press coverage and, as expected, criticism from his opponents. McCain, the long-time advocate for campaign finance reform, renewed his intention to make “big money” in politics a major campaign theme in 2000. This is McCain’s “pet issue”. It, however, has not caught on and may at this point, be perceived by some as “sour grapes” being advanced by a candidate who cannot compete in fundraising.

The fundraising powers of the Bush campaign machine have been astonishing. Since Bush only began raising funds on April 1, 1999, his total reflects an average of over $300,000 raised each day. And since in presidential contests, individual contributions can not exceed $1,000, the outreach needed to amass $36 million so quickly is quite impressive. In fact, the Bush campaign is on track to raise more money than any other in history. At the same point in time in the 1996 election, for example, the then record-setting Clinton effort had only raised around $25 million.

While some of Bush’s critics are calling his campaign excessive and are pledging to use it as an issue against him, there is no doubt that they are almost all in financial trouble. Bush’s success is making it increasingly difficult for many of his opponents to find the revenues to compete.

Billionaire Steve Forbes is, of course, an exception, since he can, and has indicated his intention to, spend his own money to match Bush dollar for dollar.

It is, of course, too early for Bush to rest on his laurels. He will continue to raise funds. His campaign is estimating that their expected tally by year’s end will be $55 to $60 million.

But Bush will also be looking over his shoulder. It is still possible that one of his competitors can develop some momentum, especially if Bush either makes a serious blunder or a series of minor blunders, or if the press catches hold of some Bush scandals, and begin to eat away at his aura of being the inevitable winner. Right now Bush is experiencing a press honeymoon and it is feeding his fundraising effort. Should the tide turn, and it may, another candidate may be viewed as promising and become the recipient of big money.

What is certain is that, in this era of prosperity, there are many more people ready and eager to contribute to politicians. At this point they are directed toward George W. Bush–but that can change.

Bush has yet another concern.

The Bush financial advantage has added to the discontent of the more hard-line, right wing elements of the Republican Party. In recent weeks, they have been distressed by Bush’s efforts to moderate the party’s position on abortion. At one point Bush indicated that he would not establish an anti-abortion litmus test for Supreme Court nominees–a position that enflamed the conservatives. He then announced that he might consider appointing a supporter of abortion rights to be his Vice Presidential running mate.

All of this has spurred some conservatives to consider running an independent presidential campaign outside of the Republican Party. With the announcement of Bush’s huge financial advantage, these conservatives are becoming concerned that they may not have the funds needed to compete within the Republican contest, further fueling discussion of a third party effort.

Despite reaching its second quarter goal of $20 million, Vice President Gore’s campaign has reason to worry about Bill Bradley’s $12 million tally. Bradley has proven that he will have adequate funds to compete in the 2000 primaries, forcing Gore’s campaign to spend more money and energy than they had hoped wold be necessary to beat their lone rival.

While Gore has inherited the Clinton network and most of the Democratic Party’s apparatus, Bradley’s effort is based on his home state (New Jersey) connections, networks from his college days at Princeton University and his years as a professional basketball player.

While Gore has the endorsement of most of the high visibility Democrats, Bradley has won the endorsement of a few popular “maverick” Democratic Senators and a number of star-quality basketball heroes who have attracted attention and support for his campaign. While Gore’s lead is still solid, the second quarter results send the clear message that Bradley (who still has not defined why he is running and how he differs from Gore) is a real candidate and will continue to compete with Gore for funds and support.

Despite the public outcry over the financial scandals that plagued the 1996 campaign, no action was taken to limit the role of money in U.S. politics. The Senate repeatedly blocked such efforts and so it appears that money and the ability to raise it will remain central to the 2000 elections.

If the reports of the second quarter are any indication of what is to come, the 2000 race will be the most expensive in history. The money may flow in different directions in the next six months, but it will continue to flow unchecked –and politics and politicians will remain focused on raising it and spending it in the increasingly expensive game of elections.

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