Campaign finances: how candidates raise and spend big bucks

Financing the 1984 Election, by Herbert E. Alexander and Brian A. Haggerty. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books. 430 pp. $14.95 paperback, $45 hardcover. America's Rube Goldberg method of nominating candidates and funding their campaigns makes the road to the presidency almost impassable for all but a few insiders. ``Fit though few'' also applies to books on the subject.

Though well written and researched, Herbert Alexander's seventh quadrennial book on campaign finance is too complex for all but committed academics and campaign strategists. Primarily a reference book for political scientists, it provides a good history of the Hatch Act, campaign finance laws, redistricting, and lawsuits affecting the federal elections system.

Alexander and Brian Haggerty provide an excellent description of the 1984 primary and general election campaigns.

The ingenuity of candidates and their supporters in finding ways to raise money and beat the system have proved remarkable. ``Soft money'' (funds that are not matched, are not included in the spending limits, and are not allowed to be spent by a candidate committee) is raised from state-level political action committees, for party building, for tax-exempt education and research foundations, and for tax-deductible nonpartisan voter registration.

Alexander and Haggerty assert that federal campaign laws that encourage small contributions (under $1,000) are largely responsible for the major increases in campaign spending. They contend that spending limits and matching funds have ``contributed to lengthening the season of active campaigning.''

It's true, as they say, that the Federal Elections Commission (which serves as a watchdog over candidates and their committees) is harder on challengers than on incumbents. The laws are complex, and novices are more likely to violate them. In part because of 1986 budget cuts, the FEC cannot process complaints prior to an election (when its decisions would be helpful to voters).

Indeed, the system excludes newcomers in many ways, especially in a challenger's ability to raise money. The authors do a yeoman's job exploring and quantifying the advantages that incumbents enjoy.

Voter registration played a more crucial role in the 1984 congressional elections than in any previous national election. The Republican Party made voter registration a priority nationwide.

Curtis Gans, possibly America's most respected analyst of voter behavior, wrote, ``Every new registration group, with the exception of blacks, registered and voted Republican.'' Gans may have been right about the South and West; he was most assuredly wrong about Ohio and several other states.

One new concept in voter registration - executive orders by governors - fell far short of its potential in 1984. Six governors, led by Ohio's Richard F. Celeste, ``with only lukewarm endorsement'' by the Democratic National Committee and active legal opposition from the Reagan administration, ordered state agencies and offices to make voter registration services available to the public with better follow-through in 1988. It will likely be a major element in national voter registration programs this year.

Alexander and Haggerty claim that tax-exempt, nonpartisan efforts registered 2 million to 2.5 million voters.

They do not go far enough in what should have been one of the book's major themes: how the $1.8 billion spent in 1983 and 1984 campaigns influenced the behavior of elected officials.

They lay part of the responsibility for the Reagan administration's ethical lapses at the door of fund-raising pressures. And there is some discussion of interest-group influence over congressional votes and committee deliberations.

There is, however, no discussion of fund-raising pressures on a patronage system, a problem most governors face. And there is little mention of the perversion of a candidate's time priorities because of an almost obsessive preoccupation with fund-raising visits and telephone calls to ask for money.

``Financing the 1984 Election'' is a good history of the '84 campaigns. But the reader does not need it to understand what Will Rogers said almost 60 years ago: ``Politics has got so expensive, it takes lots of money to even get beat with nowadays.''

Sherrod Brown is Ohio's secretary of state.

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