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Record Levels of Campaign Donations Reflect High Stakes in 2004 Election - 2004-09-20

President George W. Bush and his Democratic Party challenger, Senator John Kerry, have raised $475 million so far this election year. When you factor in the money raised by the two major political parties and political action committees formed by businesses, labor unions, trade associations and interest groups, campaign watchers expect the donations to the 2004 presidential race to exceed one billion dollars. VOA’s Serena Parker reports.

More money is raised and spent every presidential election year in the United States than in the previous campaign. Anthony Corrado, an analyst at Washington’s Brookings Institution and professor of government at Colby College in Maine, says that by the time Americans head to the polls on November 2, George Bush and John Kerry will have together spent around $650 million. That’s more than twice as much money as George Bush and Al Gore spent in 2000.

“What we find is that the candidates are only part of the story this year,” he says. “There has also been significant spending by political groups who are aligned with one party or the other who are trying to get their presidential candidate elected, as well as funding from the political parties, who are both able to spend money to support their presidential candidate.”

Added all up, that’s more than one billion dollars spent on the presidential race alone. There’s also a record amount of money going into U.S. Senate and House races, which may push total spending on the presidential election and the national congressional elections above three billion dollars.

Anthony Corrado says the American electorate is very divided this election year, which is spurring the massive influx of donations. “There’s a feeling among the electorate this year that this is a very important race,” he says. “That who wins the presidential election and who controls the national legislature is really going to make a difference in the direction of U.S. policy in the years ahead. As a result, there has been an enormous amount of organizing taking place and a great level of participation in the election.”

In contrast to the past, a lot of the money being raised comes from small contributions by individual donors. Thad Kousser, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, says that’s because of the high level of interest in the 2004 race and a change in the campaign finance law.

“One of the results of the last round of campaign finance reform in America made sure that individual donors couldn’t give a lot of money to the parties and thus effectively affect the campaigns,” he says. “So it forced candidates and parties to raise small contributions. And the Democrats have increased by ten times the number of people who gave money in chunks under $200.”

Labor unions, corporations and ideological groups also receive individual contributions for their political action committees, but they walk a fine line. That money can be used to register voters, send mailings to voters and air television and radio commercials in favor of or against a candidate. However, these groups cannot give money directly to a candidate nor can they contribute directly to a political party.

Anthony Corrado at the Brookings Institution says the presidential candidates also spend money on direct mail to voters, but 40 to 50% of their campaign budget is for advertising. “In the presidential race, for example, we’ve already seen close to $200 million spent on television ads, and we’re likely to see another $100 million spent on television advertising during the general election campaign,” he says.

The money spent on American political campaigns far outweighs the funding of similar campaigns in other Western democracies. Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, says U.S. presidential races are more expensive for a variety of reasons.

“First, the president is running a campaign of his or her own. It’s not necessarily a party-mounted campaign. It’s a candidate-centered campaign,” he says. “Second, there are these large outside privately funded campaigns. Third, political campaigns in the United States are just incredibly expensive because the television time is expensive. In most Western democracies political parties and their candidates get free media time. In the United States they have the opportunity to buy time, but the time is very expensive.”

According to political analysts, candidates who raise the most money generally win. Of course, a candidate with a compelling message that appeals to voters is capable of defeating a better-financed opponent. But a hefty bank account never hurt anyone.