The rising cost of campaigns

Whatever Washington has done to dampen domestic inflation the past four years , it hasn't extended to spending on the politicians' own campaigns. Total spending for all contests in 1980, federal to local, was $1.2 billion. For the current political cycle, spending will likely reach $1.8 billion to as much as $2 billion, according to estimates by Herbert E. Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation at the University of Southern California and the nation's leading authority on campaign finance. That's an increase of at least 50 percent - more than double the 21 percent consumer price index rise since November 1980. It comes on top of an increase in the 40 percent range during the previous political cycle.

Now we still think, on a per capita basis, that isn't a lot to invest in electing government leaders, from city hall to the White House. The $700 million for the lesser offices works out to $1.60 per capita to nominate and elect governors and state legislators, $1.22 for electing county and local officials, and $.24 for deciding ballot initiative issues. At the federal level, this election's spending for the presidency breaks down to $1.52 per capita, $1.85 for the House and Senate, not including national party expenditures and political action committee outlays for candidates.

If you measure the spending for elections against the nation's gross national product, the importance of electing leaders up to the task of directing the policies of the world's most powerful economy and a military superpower, an outlay of $8.70 per citizen for the 1984 elections does not look outlandish.

One could argue, too, that more spending is needed to make many races, especially those in the US Congress, more competitive. In a usual election perhaps 50 of 435 House seats are vacant, and about the same number are considered marginal - even fewer appear up for grabs in 1984. This means at most 100 of the 435 seats are genuinely contested, and it could take added spending to dislodge an incumbent - though there are so many instances of candidates who have raised impressive war chests and still lost that it pays not to place too much confidence in the power of the campaign dollar.

Still, the escalation of political campaign costs is cause for some concern. Partly it reflects the professionalization of campaigns. Any candidate for any prominent office now hires a campaign consultant, a pollster, and computer experts for either direct mail fund raising appeals or for targeting voters. The complex public finance laws make hiring lawyers and accountants necessary. Geraldine Ferraro and John Zaccaro's financial disclosure ordeal can only reinforce a resort to professional advisers in the future.

Campaign spending limits are one way to go. The cost of electing a president - the one category where spending limits and public financing apply - will rise from $275 million in 1980 to $350 million this year, despite the fact that this time only one party had a contested nomination. This is a 27 percent increase, which is less than the average for other races. Despite a decade of effort by such public interest groups as Common Cause, Congress has not been willing to extend public funding and spending limits to the House and Senate contests. One trouble with spending limits is that they inspire a search for loopholes - such as the ''soft money'' now raised under state law but applied to presidential campaigns.

Mandating public televised debates could be another way to co Xzk uaynding. Thresholds for eliminating fringe candidates would be needed. And such debates would mean transferring costs to the networks or to the public.

Political campaigns appear to have adjusted to the style and hence the expenditures of the media age. At the federal level, party conventions are staged and candidate itineraries are set to conform to the opportunities of the evening television news. Campaigns are costly partly because they have become essentially media productions.

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