Rise of the small contributor

A record number of individual donors feed political war chests - again prompting questions about soft money

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Robert Wootten had never written a big check to a political campaign before, but this election season something changed. For the first time, he made what he calls a "significant contribution" to a political cause: the presidential campaign of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

"I'm in a position where I can financially," says Mr. Wootten. The Des Moines, Iowa, Republican owns a glass and glazing company, and, along with the rest of the economy, his business is booming.

This is one of the untold stories of the great campaign-finance gold rush of 1999: A strong economy that has allowed thousands of Americans, for the first time, to stake a claim in political territory.

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Governor Bush has beat all his rivals in donations from individuals. More than 80 percent of the record $37 million he has raised so far has come in that form, in checks limited by law to $1,000 or less. None of the presidential campaigns tracks which donors are first-timers, but anecdotally, staffers are reporting contributions from many people like Robert Wootten - people who are thriving in the new economy and can now afford to put their money where their beliefs are.

"There are always plenty of rich people for whom $1,000 is nothing, but ... we're talking about numbers of people who can write $1,000 checks," says Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "This is the golden economy."

This trend favors Republicans, whose party tends to attract those in upper-income brackets. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, has been the beneficiary of this economic windfall.

Other factors have contributed to the 2000 campaign's unprecedented money race. The primary season has contracted, forcing candidates to raise more money, more quickly. And the stakes are unusually high, with control of the White House and Congress up for grabs.

The Big Money frenzy has triggered a succession of events. By raising so much money early, Bush has decided he can forgo federal matching funds, which means he'll face no limits in spending.

The national Democratic Party, for its part, has decided to counter Bush's big money by raising big money of its own, in the form of unregulated "soft money." Soft money allows political parties to tap their wealthy donors for whatever they can afford, unencumbered by legal limits on contributions. The money goes straight to the party, technically for "party-building activities" but in actuality is targeted, without penalty, at specific races.

The Democratic National Committee hopes to raise $200 million in soft money by November 2000, twice what the party raised for the 1996 elections. The Democrats' fund-raising practices in 1996 triggered Senate hearings - but ironically, the effect appears to be that both parties learned better where the loopholes are and how to exploit them.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group favoring the banning of soft money, expects that the Bush campaign's top fund-raisers - the so-called "Pioneers" - will set their sights on raising soft money for the Republican Party. "All of the signs tell us that, in the next election, huge amounts of soft money are going to flood the whole system," he says.

"No question, the enormous campaign finance abuses of '96 - combined with the refusal of the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department to do anything about these abuses - have sent the message that anything goes," says Mr. Wertheimer.

The Big Money theme of campaign 2000 has triggered another unprecedented development: Two serious presidential contenders, one from each major party, have made campaign-finance reform core issues in their campaigns.

In the last month, both Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and former Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey have highlighted their plans for campaign-finance reform, a perennial also-ran Washington issue.

But advocates of the reforms Sens. McCain and Bradley want - including a ban on soft money - are hopeful that the steady beat of their messages will keep the issue on the national stage for months to come. Both have done well in their own fund-raising, and will likely be in the race longer than other, less-well-financed candidates.

In the end, its unclear how much the public really cares about this issue. Ellen Miller, a campaign-finance activist, says that 90 percent of the public wants an overhaul of the system. And, she says, "I don't think they [Bradley and McCain] would be all over this issue if they didn't think it had salience with the public."

But public-opinion expert Karlyn Bowman, of the American Enterprise Institute, says that while the public does think the system is fraught with problems, there's not much intensity behind that opinion.

So even though these new streams of money enhance the image that politicians and parties are bought and paid for, the public may not rise up and demand change. What is likely to happen, say analysts, is that the fundraising "arms race" will keep escalating with no end in sight.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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