Call it a case of conventional wisdom defied. Not long after the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was signed into law, many, if not most, pundits predicted its ban on "soft money" would severely weaken the top two political parties. But the money well hasn't exactly gone dry.
According to new figures from the Federal Election Commission, both Democrats and Republicans are in good, if not great, shape. The FEC reports both parties collected more money directly from January 2003 through June of this year. Republicans raised $464.7 million in "hard" (or regulated) dollars during that time, a 64 percent increase over the same period in the 2002 election cycle. Democrats, who typically lag behind the GOP in raising money in smaller amounts (they relied much more on soft money than the GOP in the past) also did well, raising nearly $278.2 million, a 112 percent increase in the same prior period.
Democrats also went from getting 40,000 direct mail donors in 2000 to more than 1.5 million so far in this campaign. That may be a sign of a motivated electorate and the use of Internet solicitation, but it also is a clear signal that Democrats, like Republicans, put a lot of effort into seeking the hard-money dollars.
That's not to say that more campaign finance reform isn't needed. The so-called 527 special interest groups, for instance, have become a big newly discovered conduit for soft money for both parties, and that issue clearly needs closer scrutiny by campaign finance reformers.
But the fact that the parties have broadened their bases of support with individual contributions speaks well of their ability to retool. A trend toward smaller contributions can help reduce big-money political influence.