The cost of political campaigning is in the news again. It's up nationally, way up in North Carolina, and disarmingly down in Vermont. It all leads to the question of what the proper perspectives on political costs ought to be.
Getting good people into office does cost money. They need to get their messages across to the voters, which requires media ads, transportation, telephones, and staff - all of which have soared in cost over the past four years compared with the national inflation rate. By one estimate this year's political spending for all offices - local through presidential - will be from $ 1.8 billion to $2 billion, a 50 percent rise since 1980.
Unquestionably the most expensive race is the North Carolina US Senate seat, for which incumbent Jesse A. Helms and the challenger, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., together may spend an estimated $14 million. At the opposite end of the scale is Vermont's sole congressional contest, in which the two candidates have agreed to spend no more than $25,000 apiece.
Despite the high national totals, on a per vote basis America spends less money on its elections than most other democracies.
However, expensive campaigns properly lead to concern about equity. Some candidates are able to raise far more money than others. Often it is the incumbent with the monetary advantage, which makes his challenger's task exceptionally difficult. Sometimes the financial shoe is on the other foot, with the challenger able to raise the most money. In such cases the challenger then is able to offset the incumbents' inherent advantages.
In any case, less important than financial equality in a given race is that both candidates be able to raise sufficient funds to get their messages across. As political scientist Austin Ranney notes, the biggest spenders win slightly less than half the time.
Today's candidates feel a need to know as much as they can about the electorate and how to persuade it, which gives rise to media consultants and sizable campaign organizations. This is expensive and leads some to question whether it results in attempted manipulation of voters beyond the traditional bounds of persuasion. But professionalism also permits candidates to enter races on their own initiatives, rather than through selection by party leaders. It creates a talent pool of individuals experienced in the political system - some of whom ultimately wind up working for government.
This said, the direction of campaign spending appears quickly heading toward such a high dollar level that sharp review may be demanded.