August 12, 1999
That’s One Expensive Barbecue
By Nancy Northup
Presidential candidate George W. Bush has put down $43,500 of the $37 million he has raised to rent a plot of land for a day outside the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. The reason for this astronomical land grab? The Iowa Republican Party is holding a non-binding presidential straw poll in the Ames coliseum on Aug. 14. Land deals, money, presidential candidates? No, it is not Whitewater, and it is not illegal. But it is a glaring example of the corrosive role money plays in American politics.
The straw poll is a fund-raiser for the Iowa Republican Party and a way to gain some extra national publicity. Sound fair? It is not. To begin with, straw-poll voters pay to participate in this beauty contest. So do the candidates, and it seems that the more money candidates have to spend, the better the shot they have.
The party auctioned off the use of plots of land outside the arena for candidates to meet, greet, feed and entertain voters as they go in. Paying a whopping $35,000 more than any other candidate, Bush got
the largest spot, and the one closest to the arena. In contrast, rival contenders Dan Quayle, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Patrick Buchanan bid less than $2,500 and will presumably be soliciting supporters in
closer proximity to cows than to the coliseum where the action will take place.
It is easy to dismiss this auction as meaningless and the Bush campaign’s over-the-top bid as folly, but together they offer a microcosm of the distorting effects of big money on campaigns. The Iowa auction is a glaring example of how candidates with huge cash reserves are able to skew, before a single vote has been cast, what is supposed to be a neutral process. Candidates with the most money are able to buy advantages that are not necessarily related to popular support.
Money equals victory
The most visible advantage wealthy and well-funded candidates purchase is prime advertising time. Last year in California, the wealthy Al Checchi paid above retail for his ads in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, even though airtime for political ads is supposed to go for a cut rate. In the 1998 Nevada Senate race, an 11 p.m. television-ad slot days before the election went for more than five times the normal price.
It is only a small step from paying over $43,000 for a day’s use of a patch of grass to bidding other, less-flush candidates up and out of the advertising market. Just as Bush’s money buys him the biggest plot of land, it can buy him the biggest share of advertising time and space. And he can effectively drown out his opponents.
Less visible than airtime, but just as important, is the ability to put together a national campaign during the primaries far ahead of the other candidates. While poorer candidates move from state to state as the primaries progress, flush candidates are able to establish campaign infrastructures in far-flung states before anyone else has arrived. These organizations hire staff, work the phones, and distribute literature more intensely and much earlier than other candidates. The front-loaded primary season of 2000, in which primaries, including the goliath California are packed close together early, will amplify the advantages of money and the national organization it can buy.
With these advantages, it’s no surprise that those with money win elections. Last year, 95% of House winners and 94% of Senate winners outspent their opponents.
A better way
Some argue there is nothing wrong with this system, that Bush’s huge cash advantage is simply the market at work with money finding its way to the most attractive candidate, and that he is free to use it to gain advantages along the way. But a true market is not at work here. In the cola market, most Americans can plunk down 75 cents for the Cokes and Pepsis it takes to influence the soft drink market. In presidential politics, only a fraction of Americans can plunk down the $1,000 donations necessary to build a $40-million war chest.
In the current climate, it is hard to remember that a system of public funding of presidential campaigns was designed to prevent this hugelyunbalanced playing field. However, Bush, flush with donations and wary of Steve Forbes’ unlimited personal fortune, has decided to reject public funds and the voluntary spending limits that accompany them, becoming only the third candidate in the system’s history to do so (John Connelly and Forbes himself were the others). Bush’s and Forbes’ decision to opt out does not suggest that we should scrap the public funding system, but that we should strengthen it.
The current system does not go far enough. Its 1-to-1 match of public funds for every contribution up to $1,000 is not sufficient to aid those candidates who cannot attract large numbers of $1,000 donors. We
could adopt for the presidential system what Democratic candidate Bill Bradley has recently endorsed for congressional elections: for candidates that accept voluntary spending limits, provide $2 of public
money for every $1 of private money raised in amounts of $250 or less. A $3 match would be even better. Such a scheme would reorient campaigns toward small donors, create a greater incentive for
candidates to accept voluntary spending limits, and provide candidates with good ideas—but not necessarily good connections to lots of large donors—a better chance to get their message out.
The other Republican candidates are not the only ones losing out here—the voters lose, too. Votes are supposed to be the measure of support, not money. Having Iowa and New Hampshire host the first contests of the presidential season is supposed to force candidates to gather support
not by spending huge amounts of money on the best music and barbecue at straw polls, but on building relationships with voters on the ground. Flouting cash should not replace the hard work of actually campaigning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Northup is deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York
University School of Law.