Follow the candidates' money
It's the potential for influence-buying, not the fundraising total, that needs watching.
Since January 2007, candidates for the presidency have raised more than $1.5 billion – a historic high and nearly double what was raised for 2004. Though the total sounds breathtaking, it's less than what Americans will pay for Halloween costumes this year. Still, it seems scary.
Especially to the lesser-funded Republicans. John McCain decided early on to restrict his campaign spending by accepting public financing. Barack Obama reneged on his pledge to do the same, and so far his fundraising prowess keeps Mr. McCain at a definite disadvantage in buying ads and paying staff.
In the world of campaign finance, though, it is not so much the total that should keep the public on the alert. Rather, it's the potential for what these dollars can buy in political influence – in policy, regulations, appointments, and access.
In its decisions on campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court distinguishes between totals and influence, as seen in a decision last June to strike down the so-called millionaire's amendment. The law was an attempt by Congress to level the playing field for opponents facing rich candidates in House races by raising the fundraising limits for the opponents.
"Different candidates have different strengths," wrote Justice Samuel Alito, on behalf of the majority. Some, for instance, are wealthy, while others have wealthy backers. Some are celebrities, while others have famous family names.
"Leveling electoral opportunities means making and implementing judgments about which strengths should be permitted to contribute to the outcome of an election," Justice Alito continued. Voters, not Congress, make that choice, he wrote.
It can be argued that Obama's fundraising tsunami – more than $600 million – reflects popular support and engagement, and in that way signals a healthy body politic.
And while a candidate can't get out the message without sufficient money, money can't replace message – as Mr. McCain learned when he beat the better-funded Mitt Romney in the primaries.
As for influence-buying through campaign donations, that potential has decreased since the "McCain-Feingold" law – the 2002 reform that banned "soft money," or unlimited donations to parties and candidates.
In 2004, influence-seekers found a new way to skirt this restriction through unlimited giving to activist "527" groups, such as MoveOn.org and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which ran hard-hitting political ads. But fines against the 527s by the Federal Election Commission and court rulings have scaled back their activity – with spending down 12 percent this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing.
Now a hot trend is 501c4 groups (social welfare nonprofits) which don't have to disclose sources of funding. And the candidates have continued with "bundlers" – people in real estate, finance, and so on who raise $100,000 or more from many donors, and might be rewarded with an ambassadorship or a seat on a regulatory agency. Both practices need more transparency.
Who knows where campaign funding will go next. The Internet has made a huge difference, automating the process and providing ad freebies, such as YouTube clips. No matter what turns it takes, though, what needs watching are the twists, not the direction.