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The widening campaign money gap

Flush candidates hold advantages in staff, ads, travel. For the rest, it's a hard game of catch-up.

July 09, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

The gap between rich and poor is growing -- not just in American society, but also in the race for president.

Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York are rolling in cash, having raised more than $100 million between them, while the other Democratic candidates are foraging for scraps.

On the Republican side, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has $18 million in the bank and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wields a seemingly inexhaustible checkbook, allowing him to supplement contributions. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, meantime, is firing staffers and shrinking his campaign to three states after another weak fundraising quarter left him with just $2 million cash on hand. The rest of the declared GOP candidates are living on the equivalent of pocket change.

Money is not necessarily determinative. History is filled with presidential hopefuls who brandished a great deal of cash -- sometimes much more than others -- only to fail spectacularly once the voting started. Publishing magnate Steve Forbes and former Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas are two recent examples.

It is undeniably better, however, to be rich than poor. "Most campaigns don't lose," said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic strategist. "They just run out of money."

And the rich are likely to keep getting richer, making it all the more difficult for other candidates to catch up financially -- especially now that fundraisers are hitting the slow summer months.

"There is a bandwagon effect," said Marty Wilson, a Sacramento Republican consultant who oversaw Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's fundraising during last year's reelection campaign. "If people see a candidate is being successful raising money, they will tend to give more."

Money can't buy votes (at least not legally). But it does provide huge advantages both practical and tactical. It costs a lot of money to run a serious White House campaign, even one reliant on grass-roots support.

"Volunteers don't organize themselves," said Noah Mamet, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who is supporting Clinton. "Campaigns need money to spend on staff, office space, computers, office phones, cellphones, lists of registered voters, even food for volunteers."

Iowa, the first state to vote, illustrates the point.

Rather than having offices in four or five cities, a candidate with enough money can rent offices in 20 communities, a valuable asset in a state where personal contact is crucial to voter turnout. "There is no question that the more paid organizers you have, the more people you reach and organize who can help get you votes in the caucus," Carrick said.

The cost of organizers in Iowa ranges widely, from a per diem payment and a few thousand dollars a month to $15,000-plus a month for the most sought-after strategists. All those workers need cellphones, cars, computers and a place to sleep. TV advertising -- even at Iowa's comparatively low cost -- can run about $1.5 million for 10 days. "It all adds up fast," Mamet said.

A well-funded candidate also can afford extensive polling and research, testing themes and campaign advertisements before voters get a glimpse. "You don't have to guess whether an argument's going to work," said Tad Devine, a Democratic adman who has been involved in presidential politics for more than 30 years. "It gives you a tremendous leg up."

Another boost: Well-heeled candidates can foot the bill for private jets, rather than rely on commercial flights to crisscross the country. That not only saves time -- one of the most precious commodities in a campaign -- but avoids mishaps.

In March, for instance, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut failed to show at a labor rally of Las Vegas culinary workers when his commercial flight from Washington was delayed. Fellow Democrats Clinton, Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson made it on time and addressed the crowd.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of having ample cash is the ability to target numerous states, which will be important in this front-loaded primary season. In years past, there was often the chance between early contests and later primaries for candidates to replenish their bank accounts. But this time, the voting in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina will be quickly followed by what is effectively a national primary Feb. 5.

For all the talk about Internet campaigning, GOP strategist Scott Reed said, "it still comes down to blocking and tackling, motivating supporters with television and getting them out to vote." He suggested that a serious contender needed to spend $15 million on TV advertising alone in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the most hotly contested of the leadoff states. That figure may prove beyond the reach of all but a handful of candidates.

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