- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

While the Middle East, immigration, health care and homeland security will certainly dominate campaign rhetoric in 2008, gaining the nomination will have less to do with articulating a strong position on these issues and more to do with personal wealth and fundraising prowess.

As an electorate, we look to our system to provide a range of candidates to consider as our next president, yet those attributes that inspire us to gravitate toward a nominee are less intrinsic to the process than the money that enables them to run for office and communicate their message directly to voters. The irony is that the very law that was meant to lessen the role of money in our election process has, in fact, had quite the opposite effect.

The great folly of campaign finance reform is the ill-conceived belief government can control the flow of money into elections without also substantially dictating winners and losers. Rather than purging politics of big money, these laws have muted the voice of democracy and threatened its very foundation.

The truth is that Free Speech is not free. Without money, candidates are speechless. During the 2008 presidential primary process we are certain to see otherwise well-qualified candidates drop out for lack of money. In fact, because of the severe contribution restrictions, many contenders may never even try.

Theoretically, presidential primaries are national debates about important public policy issues. But it takes money to participate. By elevating both personal wealth and mass fund-raising prowess as the most important credentials in the presidential nomination process, the anomalies of campaign finance reform narrow the field and silence many contenders.

Back in 1968, in a write-in campaign during the New Hampshire presidential primary, Sen. Eugene McCarthy got 41 percent of the vote and President Lyndon Johnson got 49 percent. Three weeks later, Johnson dropped out of the race. McCarthy’s underdog challenge to an incumbent president depended totally on a few large contributions. Given the harsh reality of campaign finance reform, there can never again be an event of such historical importance unless a candidate either has a huge proven donor base or significant personal wealth. Consider:

For the first five full presidential primaries under campaign finance reform (1980, ‘84, ‘88, ‘92 and ‘96) the federal matching funds process created by reform clearly demonstrated it strongly favored candidates with proven fund-raising ability because the nominee for both major parties in each election was always the person who raised the most in matching funds the year preceding the election.

In 2000, Al Gore generated the most in matching funds and became the Democratic nominee. George Bush bypassed matching funds and raised more than $100 million to privately finance his primary victory.

In 2004, both George Bush and John Kerry bypassed the federal matching funds and privately funded their presidential primaries. Both won their respective party nominations with Mr. Bush grossing $259 million and Mr. Kerry $231 million.

From 1976-2004, the average presidential contender was able to recruit only about 7,000 maxed-out donors. Yet, in 2008, the average contender will need to recruit some 25,000 maxed-out donors to raise the projected $50 million federally mandated spending limits. Given this nearly insurmountable hurdle, the likelihood is remote of any candidate without a strong, proven fund-raising base or significant personal wealth winning either of the two major parties’ nominations.

On the Democratic side, New York’s Sen. Hillary Clinton has already demonstrated she is on her way to developing the financial muscle to bypass matching funds and compete if she runs. The X factor that could make things difficult for her is either an otherwise acceptable candidate(s) with huge personal wealth and a willingness to spend it, or emergence of a candidate capable of quickly and cost-effectively amassing a huge donor base — a Herculean task.

On the Republican side, conventional wisdom says any of the presidential aspirants who accepts federal matching funds in 2008 will be considered a second-tier candidate and a likely loser. Yet given the $2,100 individual contribution limit, candidates without personal wealth or a proven donor base who want to seriously compete will likely be forced to accept the federal spending limits or face the grim prospect of being starved for cash.

During the 2008 general election, it is virtual certain both major party presidential candidates will try to privately finance their general election campaigns. Of course, either or both candidates could accept the projected $80 million in public financing (note in 2004 the general election public financing amount was $74.6 million). But accepting this handout means a candidate will instantly lack the dollars needed to control his or her own message, and/or run a national campaign.

So what will they do? Will one or both try to privately fund his general election campaign by only accepting individual contributions to the mandated $2,100 contribution limit? Or will either or both turn mother’s picture to the wall, abandon all precedence and select a very rich vice-presidential running mate and ask that person to immediately “loan” their “joint” campaign $100 million or more?

Even more unsettling, suppose a rich third party candidate competes in the general election and captures a handful of electoral votes. Our next president would be selected by the House of Representatives, which has not happened since 1824. The 2000 Florida fiasco would look like a walk in the park by comparison.

Rodney A. Smith is the author of “Money, Power & Elections: How Campaign Finance Reform Subverts American Democracy,” (LSU Press, 2006).

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