Paying for Presidential Elections: Some Honey, and Plenty of Money

By Davies, Philip John | Contemporary Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Paying for Presidential Elections: Some Honey, and Plenty of Money


Davies, Philip John, Contemporary Review


In 1988 Senator Bob Dole appeared to be challenging well for the Republican presidential nomination. He had led in the important Iowa caucuses, but soon after this his campaign was damaged by a poor showing in the even more significant New Hampshire primary. Tom Brokaw, anchor man for NBC, when winding up the network's national TV coverage of the New Hampshire results, conducted a live interview with candidate George Bush. Bush was satisfied with his good result. He was relaxed, avuncular, and when asked whether he wanted to say anything to his rival replied 'No, just wish him well and meet him in the South'. At this point a tediously unreliable live outside broadcast link brought Bob Dole's dour face onto the screen. He had not heard the earlier part of the interview, but was faced with a similar question by Brokaw: 'is there anything you'd like to say to the vice president?' 'Yeah,' scowled Dole, 'Stop lying about my record.'

Long known for an aggressive tongue and an acerbic wit, Dole had managed, not for the first time in his attempts to enter the White House, to breach acceptable etiquette in front of a national TV audience. Given the disappointment of the night, and the pointed attacks contained in some Bush campaign materials used in New Hampshire, Dole's personal response might be understandable, but reacting heatedly in the wrong context cost him dear, reaffirming the opinions of those voters who saw him as 'arrogant', 'vindictive', 'smart-alecky', and 'mean'.

The survey research that identified this public opinion was conducted after the primary by Richard Wirthlin, a Dole political consultant interested to discover where the candidate, and the campaign, had failed. The Dole camp had understood the danger, and spent a great deal of time trying to soften the candidate's image, and to curb his loose-cannon asides. Their expensive advice had failed nonetheless. One thing was clear. If Dole ever got the chance to run again his aggression must be controlled and properly directed. For fellow Republicans of all ideological shades he must have words as calm and full of charm as possible, his humanity must be enhanced in all ways. The 1996 model must be built to win.

At the end of the twentieth century it is commonplace in marketing constantly to review the product and its presentation. Electoral politics is not at all immune to this process. All candidates are keenly aware of the competition, and of the need to create a winning distinction between themselves and the other candidates. There is, though, an added tension in elections that campaign teams in the conventional entrepreneurial world do not have. Market share means nothing to the political candidate. One vote too few is a total loss. In the USA political candidates and their campaign consultants therefore must devote considerable care to the way they display this year's model to the electorate. As with all commodities new models are expensive to create - even when they are only makeovers.

Projecting the candidates character and message to the electorate costs money. Campaign teams need to raise this cash to run the race effectively. The United States is a large country with a constitutional commitment to popular sovereignty. The total number of elected offices in the federal government, the fifty state governments, and the myriad local governments, exceeds half a million. The total spent by candidates for offices at all levels during the last presidential year of 1992 is estimated at $3.2 billion. Cheap at the price, to maintain such a comprehensive and open electoral system, according to some analysts. Expensive, manipulative, and distanced from grass-roots reality, claim others, more critical of the way campaigns and campaign financing has been developing in recent years.

Raising and spending large amounts of money in pursuit of political office inevitably leads to questions of propriety. In the USA federal legislation designed to prevent abuses in the campaign finance system was first passed in the late nineteenth century, and the Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, setting spending limits and disclosure requirements, was the centre piece of campaign finance regulation for half a century. …

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