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Fall political races: on your mark . . . get set . . . spend!

Despite the long and lingering recession, political fund raising and spending will likely break all records this November.

Spending for US House and Senate races alone could surpass $300 million, compared with $238.9 million in 1980, says Herbert E. Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation and a leading authority on election finance.

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''The rate of spending and collecting for political action committees, independent candidate expenditures, and party activities is increasing,'' says Fred Eiland, spokesman for the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

''All our studies indicate a tremendous leap forward this year,'' Mr. Eiland says. ''You scratch your head. It's such a hard economic period. You wonder at all the money going into political campaigns.''

The FEC's latest study of political action committee (PAC) activity shows a doubling of the PAC spending pace over four years ago. During the first 15 months of this election cycle, which began in January 1981, PACs paid out $75.8 million for campaigns, compared with $38.7 million in the first 18 months of the 1978 election cycle.

''This indicates there's going to be a quantum jump in campaign spending,'' Eiland says.

Politically, the soaring fund raising benefits three groups - Republicans, incumbents generally, and interest groups seeking influence in Washington.

''The recession hasn't dug into special interest contributions,'' says Mr. Alexander. ''Companies and business in bad shape still have to have access. Groups like the banking and savings and loan industry need more access during a recession than ever.''

Inflation, while a factor, falls far short of explaining the surge in campaign giving and spending, a trend already under way in 1974 when the Federal Election Act was passed but still accelerating this year.

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Inflation from 1974 to 1980 rose by 64 percent, as measured by the consumer price index. During those years, campaign spending for congressional races soared 223 percent - from $73.9 million in 1974 to $238.9 million in 1980. This year, if spending reaches $300 million, the increase would be 300 percent over 1974's level, compared with an 84 percent general price rise, according to FEC estimates.

What is the big factor behind the money surge in politics?

Professionalization of the election game, says Alexander.

''Candidates no longer campaign by putting their ear to the ground,'' he says. ''There's been a very significant professionalization of politics over the last generation. Serious candidates employ professional organizers, pollsters, media advisers, that increase the cost of campaigns.'' A single poll for a congressional district can cost over $10,000.

Other costs run higher, too. The costs of jet travel - or helicopter hopping within a state - have climbed. So have television advertising costs.

A number of legal decisions have come down on the side of escalating spending , Alexander says. The Supreme Court recently ruled in the so-called Buckley case that limits on campaign contributions cannot be enforced except for publicly funded campaigns. ''Individuals can spend whatever they want on their own campaigns, which raises the ante for the others,'' he says.

It also takes money to raise money. Of the Republican Party's $120 million spent so far, as much as $20 million or $30 million could go to direct-mail fund-raising costs, Alexander estimates.

Paradoxically, the lack of a presidential race in 1982 puts more pressure on congressional candidates and the parties to spend. ''In a presidential year, the presidential campaign preempts a lot of time and money,'' Alexander points out. ''In a congressional year like 1978 or 1982, it's Congress's ball game. They have to spend that money to stimulate the vote. Getting out the vote is partly done for them in a presidential year.''

Adding to the overall political outlays are the large number of big-state governorships on the line in 1982 - including California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. ''For the state of California alone, the governor's race this year will run double the 1978 costs,'' Alexander says. ''It will cost $20 million to elect a governor, and another $20 million to elect a senator, in California, including primary and general election outlays in both parties.''

According to the FEC's latest tally of national party spending - on the first 18 months of this election cycle, through June 30, 1982 -the Republican National Committee and its related GOP Senate and House committees spent $121 million, compared with the Democrats' $17 million. These numbers are subject to later adjustment, for factors such as transfers of funds from one party agency to another. Nonetheless, this suggests a pace well ahead of the 1979-80 cycle, when the net GOP party disbursements totaled $120.5 million, and the Democrats $18.4 million for the full two-year cycle.

The Democrats are doing better in fund raising this year, but still fall well short of the Republicans' feats, the numbers show.

The Republicans' ability to focus resources - with the help of national corporation, trade association, and conservative PACs - is what really gives the GOP its advantage, more than just an overall or per-race superiority in money.

''Basically, Republican incumbents who need money will get up to the limit the party can give,'' Alexander says. At the same time, conservative interest groups will zero in on the more marginal Democratic and liberal candidates for Senate and House races.

''The Democrats don't have anything comparable to that,'' Alexander says. ''The money labor has is more limited than the corporation and trade association PACs. Liberal PACs aren't as affluent as New Right PACs.''

''Republican challengers in marginal districts, running a good campaign, also will get money,'' he says. ''Democrats can help only incumbents who need money, not Democratic challengers.'' Congressional campaign spending (millions of dollars) Year Senate House Total 1982 -- -- *$300.0 1980 $102.9 $136.0 $238.9 1978 $86.7 $110.6 $197.3 1976 $46.3 $79.2 $125.5 1974 $28.9 $45.0 $73.9 1972 $26.4 $40.0 $66.4 * Estimate Source: citizen's Research Foundation, University of Southern California

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