Weekly Feature

Ben Fredman/AP
Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin reaches out to the crowd after a rally
at Hurkamp Park in Fredericksburg, Va.

Election Basics: Fans and Finances

October 30, 2008
by Liz Colville
Good financing and a strong fan base are two crucial components of any political campaign, especially a presidential bid.

Campaign finance is one of the most hotly debated topics in Congress. In the past decade, several reforms and court cases have helped shape “cleaner” campaign financing, but loopholes continue to be discovered and debated. Campaign staffing, on the other hand, can be both practical and symbolic. From endorsers and campaign managers on down to teenage interns and volunteers, campaign staff members can be agents of buzz or of brimstone.


A PBS television special called “Paying for Politics” discussed the financial issues surrounding the 2000 election and the projected rise in costs of Election 2004. Through statistics on campaign finance reform, the show gives us some insight on this hot topic and draws on research from other publications, such as The Economist. Statistics analyze mounting costs (and donations) of several previous elections. The information is a helpful look at recent history and the aftermath of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act, passed in 2002 to eliminate so-called “soft money” from campaign financing. Soft money is typically donated by “527 organizations”—as defined by the tax code—whose main goal is to influence election outcomes.
Open Secrets tracks the financing of current and past presidential candidates. More statistics on “who’s giving and who’s getting” are on the Federal Election Commission’s Web site.

Campaign Finance Loopholes

Although the McCain-Feingold Act (also known as Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or BCRA) helped reform campaign finance, much has been made of the loopholes in the act. The best way to respond to loopholes is widely believed to be public funding, which, according to Deborah Goldberg writing for The Nation, has been working on a local and state level.
One such loophole was explored in a 2007 case before the Supreme Court. According to The Nation article, the Court ruled in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC that grassroots advocacy groups could run commercials that featured “advocacy about an issue,” even if that issue was popularly associated with a particular candidate. Goldberg says organizations and lawmakers will continue to look for loopholes in the BCRA; however, “loopholes just wouldn't matter as much if candidates had a meaningful alternative to private largesse”—that is, public funding.
The latest measure in this direction is the bipartisan (Senators Durbin and Specter) Fair Elections Now Act, which applies to Senate races, and is outlined by the Public Campaign Action Fund, along with a list of the states that currently hold “clean” (public funding-only) elections.

Token Figures

Bill Clinton, a two-term president and political celebrity, has holdover supporters that even an extramarital affair and impeachment trial didn’t alienate. The comeback kid of the 1992 election, Clinton was all but the campaign manager of his wife’s presidential bid, an experienced diplomat called charismatic even by his biggest critics. Following Senator Clinton's suspension of her campaign, some, including former President Jimmy Carter, concluded that her husband had ultimately been a hindrance, though at one time his support was seen as more significant than Oprah Winfrey's for Senator Obama.
As far as endorsements go, the magic word is celebrity. But in 2008, comedy was perhaps more important, with "Saturday Night Live" creating a special 30-minute show called "Weekend Update Thursday" devoted solely to election humor. Governor Sarah Palin also appeared on the Saturday edition of the show just as the presidential candidates had earlier in the year (Palin gave "SNL" its highest rating in 14 years).

Director Ron Howard, comedian Sarah Silverman and actor Ed O'Neill (aka Al Bundy) are among the celebrities that have taken a comedic turn on behalf of Democratic candidate Sen. Obama. Yahoo! News reports on their efforts and includes videos of their humorous ad spots.

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