Weekly Feature

M. Spencer Green/AP

Facets of the U.S. Presidential Election: Fans and Finances

January 14, 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, which also tracks the financing of current and past presidential candidates, has an in-depth article on the campaign finance issue, specifically addressing how it affects the American voter, and tracing the history of Congress’s attempts at reform, which go back to the early 1970s. 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 the issue, much has been made of the loopholes in the act. The solution is widely viewed to be public funding, which, according to this piece in The Nation, has been working on a local and state level.
One loophole was represented in a recent case before the Supreme Court. In 2006, in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, the Court ruled that grassroots advocacy groups could run commercials that featured “advocacy about an issue,” not about a particular candidate, according to the Nation article above. While Goldberg says organizations and lawmakers will continue to look for loopholes in the BCRA, “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 elections, and is outlined by the Public Campaign Action Fund here, along with a list of the states that currently hold “clean” (public funding-only) elections.

Token Figures

Candidates use different tactics and endorsements to pump up their platforms and raise the stakes for their rivals, and often the magic word is celebrity.
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 is now all but the campaign manager of his wife’s presidential bid, an experienced diplomat called charismatic even by his biggest critics, and an emblematic presence who has proven to be a great boost to Senator Clinton’s popularity. A December Washington Post column by Howard Kurtz is devoted to the “pull” of Bill. In it Kurtz mentions a New York Times/CBS poll that shows 44 percent favorable of Bill’s backing. This is compared to the single percent polled who felt the same support for Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama.
On the Republican side, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee has his daughter at his side. The twenty-something Sarah is what Time calls a “family field general” in a recent article on the Huckabee campaign. Together Mr. Huckabee and Sarah, who moved to Iowa for the two months leading up to the caucus, have capitalized on a shared sense of humor. They conspired to used the popularity of Chuck Norris’s action-hero days to create an amusing television ad that features Norris and Huckabee standing side by side, essentially endorsing each other, with nothing but a twinkle in Huckabee’s eye to give the joke away.
On both sides, the endorsements continue to roll in. While the same wealthy companies and corporations might finance several campaigns, symbolic support systems—including newspapers as well as celebrities and fellow politicians—can only endorse one candidate per office. That singular backing might just give the chosen one an edge over his or her competitors: The most recent addition is 2004 candidate Senator Kerry’s endorsement of Senator Obama. For a list of political endorsements in several key states, go to the Washington Post’s “Presidential Endorsements” section.

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