Half billion spent on election despite rhetoric of frugality

The US economy may be sputtering down to minicar tastes, as the campaign sloganeers charge, but spending for office-seeking itself in 1980 in soaring to luxury car levels.

Campaign '80 will cost $450 million for federal offices alone -- more than half again 1976's $290 million, and well outspacing the rate of inflation.

Further, despite reports that Americans are "turned off" by the candidates and politics this year, levels of private giving have also soared.

And contrary to Carter/Mondale complaints that the Reagan/Bush team has an unfair edge in independent committee support, the two major-party slates will each spend about $55 million when Democratic labor support is added in.

These are among the projections for the four-year 1980 political cycle, fast coming to an end Nov. 4, made by Herbert E. Alexander, a University of Southern California election finance expert.

"Contrary to the general view, Republicans don't have an overall spending advantage in the presidential race," Mr. Alexander told the Monitor. "And Democrats have a greater ability to coordinate more of their expenditures."

Both candidates start out even with $34 million -- $29.4 million in federal funds, plus $4.6 million each in national party aid. This $34 million is under direct candidate control, Alexander explains. The Republicans will do better with state and local party spending in behalf of the presidential candidates, raising $10 million to the Democrat's $3 million to $5 million. The candidates also can supervise this spending.

But the Republican's $10 million to (at most) $15 million in estimated independent committee spending can neither be coordinated nor controlled by the Reagan team. While the Democrat's $15 million in organized labor backing can be at least coordinated, though not controlled, by Carterites.

In addition to campaign outlays, both major party candidates can raise another $1 million in private money for complying with Federal Election Commission bookkeeping and legal requirements.

"The Democrats have hyped up the independent committee expenditure issue," Mr. Alexander says. "The Democratic lawsuits no doubt cooled the fund raising, keeping the committees from going all-out while the litigation was under way. But the independent committee estimates of $50 million to $70 million were outrageous in the first place. They had no constituencies to draw from and competed for the same funds.

"And of the $10 million to $15 million they appear to be raising, $3 million to $4 million will go for direct- mail costs."

Electing a president alone in 1980 will cost $250 million, compared with $160 million in 1976 -- including prenomination campaigning, the primaries, third-party and independent races, and national party convention costs.

In the presidential spending, $100 million will be offset by public funds in 1980, compared with $72 million in 1976. This leaves an increase in private giving from $90 million in 1976 to $150 million in 1980, Alexander says.

For the US Senate and House of Representatives races this year, campaign costs will reach $200 million -- all in private funds. This compares with $140 million in 1976 for nominating and electing congressional candidates, including Political Action Committee contributions.

In 1980 the Democrats have nowhere near the disadvantage they endured in 1972 , before election spending reforms, when Richard Nixon spent $60 million to George McGovern's $30 million. "Poormouthing is a part of the Democratic strategy this year," says Mr. Alexander. "It's not realistic to say they're being outspent."

Both presidential candidates plan to spend about half -- $16 million $17 million of their base $34 million for "media" -- or about the same proportion of their federal money as in 1976, Alexander says.

"The difference this year is in greater grass-roots activity," he says. "Unlimited spending now is allowed, under 1979 election law amendments, for state and local party volunteer activity. This includes phone banks as long as they are manned by volunteers. There had been criticism the '76 campaign inhibited local activity and spending for things like bumper stickers."

In 1976, local and state party units could spend a maximum of $1,000 each, totaling at most $2 million.

Democrat Carter had the post-convention resources edge in 1976, Mr. Alexander says -- by $36 million to under $30 million for Gerald Ford. Both candidates had $25 million in federal and national committee, funds. Carter had another $ 11 million in labor support, and Ford $2 million in state and local GOP funds. There were no independent committee outlays in 1976.

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