In the most expensive presidential contest in the nation's history, John F. Kerry and his Democratic supporters nearly matched President Bush and the Republicans, who outspent them by just $60 million, $1.14 billion to $1.08 billion.
But despite their fundraising success, Democrats simply did not spend their money as effectively as Bush. That is the conclusion of an extensive examination of campaign fundraising and spending data provided by the Federal Election Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and interviews with officials of the two campaigns and the independent groups allied with them.
How the Two Parties Split Their Millions|
The 2004 presidential campaigns and the national parties handed out bigger contracts, hired more consultants and bought more television time than ever, with both sides channeling millions of dollars to consultants specializing in media, direct mail and fundraising.
Here is how it was spent.
The Bush campaign turned to relative newcomers nurtured by White House political adviser Karl Rove. Their companies received at least $250 million from the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee. They are:
Mark McKinnon (Public Strategies Inc.), a Texan and a former Democrat who put together the 12-member ad-making consortium, Maverick Media, which was paid $177 million, mostly for radio and TV time. Maverick consultants McKinnon, Alex Castellanos (National Media Inc.), Stuart Stevens (the Stevens and Schriefer Group) and Madison Avenue executives Bruce Van Dussen and Harold Kaplan agreed to be paid fees instead of a percentage of their ad buys. Sources estimated Maverick's consultancy fees were as much as $6 million.
Tony Feather, political director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign, a principal in the direct mail and voter contact firm, Feather Larson & Synhorst DCI, which was paid $21.3 million.
Todd Olsen and Heather Shuvalov, who bought Rove's Austin direct-mail firm, forming Olsen & Shuvalov, which was paid $41.3 million.
The Kerry campaign hired mainly consultants entrenched in the Democratic establishment, led by Robert Shrum, a speechwriter, media adviser and strategist on eight losing presidential campaigns dating to Edmund S. Muskie in 1972. The Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee also used a consortium, called Riverfront Media, which was paid $150 million for TV advertising. The first receiving the Democratic work were:
Shrum, Tad Devine and Michael Donilon's firm, which was paid about $5 million.
James Margolis's firm, Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns and Associates, and Bill Knapp's firm, Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, which divvied up $5 million.
Democratic media consultants David Axelrod and Steve Murphy, who split about $1 million in fees for DNC independent expenditure ads.
In a $2.2 billion election, two relatively small expenditures by Bush and his allies stand out for their impact: the $546,000 ad buy by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush campaign's $3.25 million contract with the firm TargetPoint Consulting. The first portrayed Kerry in unrelentingly negative terms, permanently damaging him, while the second produced dramatic innovations in direct mail and voter technology, enabling Bush to identify and target potential voters with pinpoint precision.
Those tactical successes were part of the overall advantage the Bush campaign maintained over Kerry in terms of planning, decision making and strategy. The Kerry campaign, in addition to being outspent at key times, was outorganized and outthought, as Democratic professionals grudgingly admit.
"They were smart. They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said. "They were much more sophisticated in their message delivery."
The ultimate test of the two campaigns is in the success of their efforts to increase turnout from 2000. Kerry and his allies increased the Democrat's vote by about 6.8 million votes; Bush increased his by nearly 10.5 million. In the key battleground of Ohio, Bush countered Kerry's gains in the metropolitan precincts by boosting his margin in exurban and rural counties from 57 to 60 percent, eking out a 118,457-vote victory.
A supposed strategic advantage for the Democrats -- massive support from well-endowed independent groups -- turned out to have an inherent flaw: The groups' legally required independence left them with a message out of harmony with the Kerry campaign.
A large part of Bush's advantage derived from being an incumbent who did not face a challenger from his party. He also benefited from the experience and continuity of a campaign hierarchy, based on a corporate model, that had essentially stayed intact since Bush's 1998 reelection race for Texas governor.
Take Office, Plan Campaign
When Bush moved into the Oval Office in 2001, planning for his presidential reelection campaign began almost immediately. Under the direction of Karl Rove, Bush's top White House adviser who served as a kind of chairman of the board, White House political director Kenneth B. Mehlman, the chief executive officer, pollster Matthew Dowd, chief operating officer, and Mark McKinnon, the principal media consultant, the Bush political team developed a strategy for 2004, began investing in innovative techniques to target voters and prepared an early and cost-effective advertising plan. During this period, the Republican National Committee, where much of the planning was based, outspent its Democratic counterpart by $122 million.
In 2001, Dowd said that "we made some of the basic strategic assumptions about what we thought the election would look like."
One fundamental calculation was that 93 percent of the voting-age public was already committed or predisposed toward the Democratic or Republican candidate, leaving 7 percent undecided.
Another calculation was that throughout the Bush presidency, "most voters looked at Bush in very black-and-white terms. They either loved and respected him, or they didn't like him," Dowd said. Those voters were unlikely to change their views before Election Day 2004.
That prompted Republicans to jettison their practice of investing 75 to 90 percent of campaign money on undecided voters. Instead, half the money went into motivating and mobilizing people already inclined to vote for Bush, but who were either unregistered or who often failed to vote -- "soft" Republicans.
"We systematically allocated all the main resources of the campaign to the twin goals of motivation and persuasion. The media, the voter targeting, the mail -- all were based off that strategic decision," Dowd said.