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The Nation : The High Cost of Running for Office: Is It a Case of 'A Fool and His Money'?

July 17, 1994|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — In California, we are again presented with the age-old political question: "Is it possible to buy high elective office?"

Rep. Michael Huffington, having disposed of his Texas oil and gas business, has set a new campaign spending record--spending $6.3 million of his personal wealth to win the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. He already held the record for most personal money spent in a House race: donating almost all the $5.4 million spent in his successful 1992 race to his own campaign. At this rate, the spending in this fall's race between Huffington and incumbent Dianne Feinstein will easily set a record, both in terms of gross spending and dollars spent per voter.

Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of Watergate, the Democrats in Congress easily passed a comprehensive campaign-funding bill that promised the end of profligate spending and a return of campaign financing to the common man. They created a law that set limits in federal elections on individual contributions, established the Federal Election Commission to oversee the raising and spending of political money and, at the presidential level, established the system of matching small contributions from federal coffers.

Caught up in the spirit of the times, the Supreme Court swallowed all of it, except one thing: They gagged at restricting an individual's right to spend as much of his own money as he wished in his own campaigns. Which brings us to Huffington.

The nominee is presumably in the hands of ad men and pollsters who have evidently noted that his fortune runs to at least $70 million and, therefore, this is a race in which they can be paid for running TV ads and taking polls as fast as they can. I don't mean to leave out the direct mail people--but their extravagances, while substantial, do not compare.

The truth is that while you need adequate money to run a campaign, having too much will often hurt you. At best, you will simply waste a lot. The GOP has consistently spent more money on campaigns than the Democrats for more than 100 years. If the relationship between money and political results were what it is assumed to be, we'd be living in a one-party system by now.

Someone should tell Huffington the facts of life--namely, that TV advertising and sophisticated polling cannot, in and of themselves, win an election. If you are unknown, TV advertising can quickly raise your name identification and, as more people know who you are, your support will seem to go up.

I say "seem" to go up, because people who claim they support you after seeing a few good things about you sign no irrevocable pledge that their interest in you (what polls measure) will continue once they hear the whole story. Yet, it never strikes candidates (who love to believe they are loved) as odd that hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to their banner when all they know is the candidate's name, who he is running against and that he has led an apparently exemplary life.

A poll is but one frame in a motion picture. If you have developed a plot for your campaign, polling is helpful to see whether the public likes it. If you just run ads and then take a poll, the poll will show improvement--unless the ads are horrible. However, this is only a measure of interest, which should be higher whenever you force your way into the voter's mind. If nothing else happens, this interest will fade as quickly as it appeared.

When two candidates have the same name identification, no amount of paid TV advertising is likely to change things. Once the candidate notices that he is spending tremendous sums on advertising and polling, yet not advancing in support, he is told by his campaign advisers that it is time to start the negative campaign. Whichever side starts throwing mud, the other responds in kind and, as we move toward Election Day, we get into the truly dreadful side of politics.

After one candidate emerges from the mud pit victorious, the ad men who formed his successful mud balls and the pollster who tracked their accuracy join hands to proclaim their genius, while the winner slinks off in an attempt to cleanse himself before he undertakes his duties.

The losing political practitioners come forward to denounce their candidate as an idiot, the campaign treasury as inadequate and the failure to make correct crucial decisions--such as the refusal to raise the issue of the winning candidate's alleged fondness for a pet sheep he had as a boy--as the reason. All consultants make a lot of money--so even the losers don't feel too badly.

The Huffington-Feinstein race is simple. Feinstein promised change; without the benefit of any polling, I can say that few Californians believe there has been adequate change in the last two years. Once he has achieved comparable name identification, Huffington should come forward and say what he would do differently to accomplish the kind of change Californians desire.

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