WASHINGTON — When Bill Clinton left the White House, his party lost not only a formidable politician, but also its greatest fundraiser - the man who made Democrats competitive financially for the first time in years.
Now, with their former president spending most of his time at sporting events - and without the prospect of immediate campaign-finance reform to rewrite the rules of the game - Democrats are falling further behind in a race where Republicans still have a strong advantage, thanks to an enthusiastic donor base and carefully honed techniques.
That's not to say the Democrats are doing badly. The Democratic National Committee raised a record $23 million between January and June of this year. But its GOP counterpart raised more than $48 million during the same period - $23 million alone at a single black tie dinner featuring President Bush.
Democratic leaders say they are more committed than ever to building the party's small donor base, particularly in the event that campaign-finance reform passes and they become solely dependent on small, regulated contributions. But these efforts themselves will take time and money - something the party may not be able to spare going into the highly competitive 2002 midterm elections.
"From the early figures, it does look like the Republicans are being very successful in their fundraising," says Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks money in politics. "Democrats are going to have to put more effort into motivating their small donor base, but it will take a lot of work. Especially when they had the White House for eight years, [and] it was easier to go to the large contributors."
The real GOP edge
Significantly, experts say, the Democratic Party no longer faces an inherent disadvantage because of the income level of their supporters. While Republican voters on average still may have more disposable income, "there are millions of self-identified Democrats who have plenty of money to contribute," says Thomas Mann, a campaign-finance expert at the Brookings Institution here. In fact, he says, "income has a weaker and weaker relationship to party [affiliation] as time goes on."
The GOP's cash advantage is more a consequence of having invested earlier in its fundraising operations, starting in the 1970s, Mr. Mann says. Back then, Democrats were the "permanent majority" in Congress, and their incumbents had no trouble raising money, so they put little stake in their party fundraising operations.Republicans, on the other hand, "didn't have the advantage of majority status, and they started using their party organizations much earlier."
The Republican National Committee today has far more sophisticated computer tracking systems and methods of communicating with voters than its Democratic counterpart.
"They can go in surgically and come up with a group of voters that are pro-choice, pro-environment Republicans who wear green ties on Election Day," says DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri. "It's just a whole new ballgame now than it was five years ago even, and we haven't been keeping up the way that we should."
DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe has launched a drive for new fundraising technology. But he may find that task increasingly difficult. With a number of congressional seats in play for 2002, thanks to redistricting, and control of the House and Senate up for grabs, the party may feel pressure to spend whatever money it has on immediate needs, rather than make long-term investments in technology.
"Democrats have done better in hard money from one cycle to the next - it's not as if they ignore direct mail fundraising. But building up your mailing list means you've got to be willing to take whatever you get and reinvest it," says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute here. "And that is a very hard idea to sell when you are within striking distance of a majority. When there is a possibility that the basic political complexion of one chamber or another could change in this election, how do you justify putting matters off until some future election?"
The Democrats' strategy
In the meantime, the party is adjusting its fundraising strategy to target more small donors. "There's been more of a focus on working with individual members of the Democratic caucus, to do events in their hometowns with their supporters," says Kim Rubey, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "For instance, we did a really successful event with Hilda Solis, a freshman member from California. That was a low-ticket event that raised a considerable amount of hard money for us, and it's those kinds of activities we're going to replicate and focus on for the time being."
Another way Democrats hope to make up for lost ground is by bringing Mr. Clinton back onto the fundraising circuit. Although he had initially planned to hold off on fundraisers until the fall, Democratic officials now say that he will attend an Aug. 8 event in the Hamptons, as well as the DNC retreat in Martha's Vineyard.
"There's no question that he's a major asset in terms of fundraising," says Ms. Rubey. "There are still a lot of our supporters that are interested in seeing him."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor