As one who has been skeptical of the claimed virtues of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, I am happy to concede that it has, in fact, passed its first test in the 2004 campaign with flying colors.
The 2002 law, which insiders refer to as BCRA (for Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, pronounced bick-rah), did not, as many of us critics feared, weaken political parties or stifle political debate. Instead it played at least a supportive role in the greatest upsurge ever recorded in the number of small contributors.
Those conclusions were, in effect, forced on me by listening to a bevy of experts present their evidence at a recent forum sponsored by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.
Michael Malbin, the institute's executive director, reminded listeners at the outset that, when it was passed in 2002, BCRA, which he called "the most important change in a generation" in campaign finance regulation, had drawn vehement criticism.
While some argued that it did too little to stem the flow of money into politics, Malbin said, the main complaint was that "it did too much." Its ban on unlimited "soft money" contributions to the parties would weaken their role, critics said, and its restrictions on outside groups' ads during campaign time would harm free speech.
The prediction about the parties turned out to be flat wrong. As Anthony Corrado of Colby College showed, the national party committees together raised $1.2 billion in hard money (regulated contributions) in the 2004 election cycle, $140 million more than they had raised in hard and soft money combined for the 2000 contest.
They were helped by a boost in the maximum permitted hard-money contribution but even more by a vast increase in the number of small donors. Republicans had been working away at that goal for years, but they still were able to expand their donor base in 2004 by 1.8 million.
For Democrats, the change was dramatic. From a dependence on soft money for more than half the budget in 2000, said Jackson "Jay" Dunn, the DNC's national finance director, Democrats switched to a reliance on small donors. They expanded their list of direct-mail prospects from 1 million to 100 million and their Internet contacts from 70,000 to 1 million.
While Republicans held an overall fundraising advantage, Democrats narrowed the gap to the smallest in two decades and, for the first time, the Democratic National Committee actually outraised the Republican National Committee.
But there were significant differences in the way the two sides spent their money. Democrats emphasized TV ads, filling in for John Kerry during times in the campaign when their nominee was running low on funds. Republicans put the bulk of their funds into grass-roots organizing.
Jack Oliver, a principal fundraiser for the Bush campaign and the RNC, said that difference paid off for the president in closely contested states such as Ohio. There and elsewhere, he said, local volunteers recruited by the Bush campaign proved more adept at turning out voters than the out-of-state workers hired by independent groups to whom the Democrats "outsourced" much of their precinct work.
Despite these differences, all three of the experts -- Corrado, Dunn and Oliver -- agreed that the emphasis in coming campaign cycles will be on face-to-face contact with voters.
Corrado complimented the Democrats for recruiting 233,000 volunteers who made 11 million phone calls. But he said he was even more impressed by the way those in the Bush campaign linked candidate appearances and scheduling decisions to voter mobilization efforts.
Because they knew that the president, the vice president and the first lady could draw crowds, they offered seats and standing room at their events as rewards for people who had volunteered time on the campaign. And the Bush-Cheney rally attendees were recruited on the spot to go back out to the precincts and work on their neighbors.
BCRA, the experts said, clearly did not eliminate the influence of big-money contributions. Some of the gifts to independent advocacy groups -- the so-called 527s -- dwarfed in size any sums ever given to the parties in past soft-money contributions. That issue remains to be resolved.
Oliver and others cautioned that the new campaign finance system must still be tested in a cycle when there is no close presidential contest to stir public interest. But a solid start has been made in expanding the financial base of both parties and using the resources to bring more people into the electorate. That is all to the good.