U.S. presidential candidates have broken fundraising records as they head into the 2004 election year. Raising money to pay for election campaigns has become an essential part of American politics.
President Bush made headlines recently with news that during 2003, his campaign had already raised more than $130 million for his re-election bid. This figure broke a previous record of $100 million that he set in 2000.
The Democratic candidate with the most money, Howard Dean, raised more than $40 million in 2003, an amount that shattered the one-year record for Democratic party presidential campaign fundraising.
Candidates from either party can accept federal funds for their campaigns, but they must abide by spending limits. Mr. Bush, Mr. Dean, and another Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, have all opted out of the system. As the leading challenger, Mr. Dean still only has about one-fourth of the president's financial war chest. At a recent Democratic debate, he contended that he and his fellow candidates are at a serious disadvantage. "The front-runner in this campaign is George W. Bush, and all the powerful people who've given him millions of dollars and benefited from his policies," he said.
The importance of money is evident in the amount of time presidential candidates, including the incumbent president, spend fundraising.
At a fundraiser in Maryland in December, President Bush thanked donors, and said he hopes their financial support will translate into votes for him at the polls. "I want to thank you for your contributions," he said. "I also want to thank you for the contribution of time you're going to make."
Why does money matter? Steve Weiss, of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks money in American politics and its effect on elections, says money helps improve a candidate's chances of success.
"In elections overall, roughly nine out of ten times, the candidate who spends the most money wins the elections," he said. "That's most often true in congressional elections, but the same principle applies to presidential elections. Money doesn't buy you elections, but it can go a long way to strengthening your candidacy."
Republicans historically have raised more money than their Democratic rivals. But Joe Sandler, a lawyer who served as in-house legal counsel for the Democratic National Committee for five years in the 1990s, says that has not stopped Democratic candidates from winning elections.
"We were vastly outspent in 1992, when we won the presidency," he said. "We were vastly outspent in 1996, when President Clinton was the first Democratic president to be re-elected in 40 year, and so - we need enough to be competitive. We don't have any illusions it will ever be at parity."
That underdog spirit is apparently driving Carol Moseley Braun, who was the only woman in a field of nine Democratic presidential candidates. Before she dropped out of the race, the former Illinois senator is reported to have raised only several hundred thousand dollars and was trailing in nationwide support.
"When you start off being different, you have to campaign differently," she said. "And we've done the best we can within the resources that we have to get around to the states that are involved in this process. I have done more with less money."
As states go through their own Democratic caucuses and primaries, candidates who lack electoral support will have trouble raising money and will be forced to quit the race.
"The ability to raise money, and fundraising itself, is hugely important. It signals a well-organized campaign," said Steve Weiss from the Center for Responsive Politics. "It shows strength and the enhanced ability to win an election. And it shows popular support as well. If you're not raising much money, it just doesn't bode well for your campaign in a number of respects."
Mr. Weiss, whose group tracks the influence of money in politics, says voters would be wise to not only pay attention to which candidates are raising the most money, but also to which groups or individuals may be contributing money, in hopes of influencing the various candidates.