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Straight Talk on Campaign Finance: Separating Fact from Fiction Paper No. 3

Political Parties

Published: January 1, 2000

One of a series of six papers produced by the Brennan Center regarding Campaign Finance Reform: Political Parties

> Download pdf here.


· The McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan bills eliminate soft money contributions to political
parties and increase hard money contribution limits. These measures will strengthen the
political parties. Parties will refocus on average voters, rather than special interests
able to make five and six figure contributions. Party participation will expand.

· Senator Mitch McConnell, predicting that McCain-Feingold will destroy parties, closed the
Senate debate by offering the specter of an uncertain and unworkable campaign finance
system: “Welcome to the hard money world.”

· Yet a world where political parties rely overwhelmingly on hard money should pose no
mystery to Senator McConnell or other members of Congress. It existed just twelve years
ago, during the Senator’s first term.

· The Republican and Democratic parties’ addiction to soft money is a recent phenomenon.
In 1988, the parties raised $45 million in soft money. In 2000, that figure had exploded to
$495 million—an eleven-fold increase in three election cycles. The notion that parties are
stronger today than they were a decade or two ago, before the advent of soft money,
is simply false.

· Welcome to the soft money world: Corporations and unions, which are banned by law from
making political contributions, give the parties hundreds of millions of dollars of soft money,
which the parties spend on campaign ads supporting and opposing candidates.

· Is a political party consumed with purchasing television commercials stronger than a
political party focused on candidate recruitment, message development, grassroots
organizing, and voter mobilization? Clearly not.

· Of the $456 million of soft money spent by the parties in the 2000 election, by far the largest
share—38 percent, or $173 million—was spent on sham issue ads aired on television and
radio to elect or defeat candidates.

· Just 8 cents of every soft money dollar was spent on party building, grassroots
organizing, and get-out-the-vote operations. In the 2000 election, we saw nearly a 5:1
ratio of party soft money spending on sham issue ads to spending on voter mobilization

· The 2000 elections were the first in history in which a majority of the money spent by parties
on television ads—56 percent—was unregulated soft money.

· In 2000, party soft money ads mentioned a candidate running for office 99.8 percent of the

· In 2000, party soft money ads, which are supposed to be party-building, failed to even
mention a political party 92 percent of the time.

· Party soft money television ads that were broadcast within 60 days of the election attacked
the opposing party’s candidate 54 percent of the time.

· For the first time in history, the parties replaced candidates as the top spenders on television
ads in the 2000 presidential election. Together, the Republican and Democratic parties
spent $81 million on televised campaign appeals, substantially more than the $71 million
spent by candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore.