In Campaign 2008, Candidates Starting Earlier, Spending More

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Starting as early as last June, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was hiring staffers and consultants in New Hampshire and Iowa and building the foundation for his 2008 presidential bid at a time when those in early battleground states typically get a breather from national politics.

Campaign filings released last week show that he spent more than $375,000 on staffing and consulting, getting an early jump in those states. One campaign cycle earlier, a single candidate -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- had started hiring in-state advisers at that point, and by the end of 2002 he had spent only $4,200 paying those aides.

The financial reports begin to document the underpinnings of a drive for dollars that is expected to make 2008 the nation's first billion-dollar presidential campaign. Top-tier candidates are hard at work courting wealthy political enthusiasts who can deliver scores of thousand-dollar donors. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) held a gathering for 70 of those "bundlers," as they are known, last night at her Washington home. [Story, A8.]

To understand the impulses behind this fundraising race, look no further than activity in a cluster of early caucus and primary states. Democrats competing for their party's nomination will face a rapid-fire succession of contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in January. Republicans will compete in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan. A number of states -- including behemoths such as California and Florida -- are seeking to move up their primaries to early February.

"Everything is so compact," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire political consultant who is working for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R). "You've got to be competing everywhere across the board, right from the start."

To compete in those states, candidates are already confronting a daunting array of new expenses and demands that is creating a presidential sticker shock.

This year, candidates will need to hire more employees to wage battles in the growing number of early primaries. They will make unprecedented investments in computer technology to unlock clues to voter behavior.

They enter a 2008 field flush with political megastars who have set stratospheric fundraising goals. And the cost of such staples as television commercials will soar as candidates forgo public financing and the accompanying spending quotas.

That has meant candidates have started spending in those states earlier than ever. A full picture of that early activity will emerge more clearly in April, after most candidates have filed their first campaign reports.

But the 2006 expense reports released last week provide a glimpse at how aspirants have started spending their money. By the end of last year, budding contenders in the Democratic field had already written more than $660,000 in checks from their federal accounts to fund activities in key states -- more than twice what their counterparts spent in 2002 in the run-up to the 2004 presidential contest.

Steve Elmendorf, a deputy campaign manager in Kerry's 2004 bid, said campaigns are facing a series of escalating costs, including the "enormous expense" of building robust teams of political workers in four states at once.

"You need a big infrastructure in each one of these states," he said. "You need a press infrastructure, a political infrastructure, a fundraising infrastructure. And that takes people."

Add to that the rising price of travel, Elmendorf said. When McCain first ran for president in 2000, he defrayed some travel costs by flying on corporate jets. Under Federal Election Commission rules at the time, candidates could bill their campaign accounts the cost of a first-class ticket for a corporate flight.

But now, his campaign has said, McCain is abiding by a pledge to stay off corporate jets. In the past year, that has meant spending more than $1.1 million on charter flights, according to filings by his leadership committee.

Candidates will also be trying to reach voters through the Internet and through their mailboxes, and that will mean unprecedented investment in technology, much of which was in its infancy four years ago. This year, nearly all candidates are posting videotaped speeches on their Web sites to speak directly to voters.

When then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) began preparing for his first presidential bid, he made an early investment of nearly $100,000 to build an Internet operation. As he began constructing his 2008 effort, he found the cost to put his stamp on the Web had more than quadrupled, with close to half a million dollars already spent on consultants and technical-support teams.

Just as Edwards saw Web site production grow more costly, others are finding new ways to modernize campaign techniques that once relied on index cards and shoe leather.

Ken Strasma, a consultant whose firm developed a microtargeting program that uses vast supplies of marketing data to identify and persuade a candidate's likely supporters, said the powerful targeting programs will be more widely used this cycle.

In small states, such as Iowa, a candidate can spend $100,000 to $200,000 to identify every caucus voter within their reach and figure out how best to persuade them. In larger states, those costs will multiply.

Already, Edwards and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) have each paid $50,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party for copies of its voter files, and Dodd forked over $50,000 to the New Hampshire Democratic State Committee for its membership list.

Then there's television, which is always one of the largest expenses facing a presidential campaign.

Rath said he expects candidates to be up on television far sooner this time around. If candidates forgo public funding, as many expect, they will no longer be subject to strict spending limits on the amount candidates could invest in each state. Under FEC rules, candidates taking public money would face a spending cap that in 2004 amounted to just $729,000 in New Hampshire, though most candidates found legal ways to circumvent that limit.

Four years ago, only President Bush, Kerry and former Vermont governor Howard Dean opted out of the public system, which meant they could ignore the state-by-state limits altogether.

Steve Murphy, who managed the campaign of then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) in the 2004 cycle and is now working with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), said that four years ago spending limits might have left most candidates with no more than a couple of million dollars to spend on television in the early states. Now that number could increase tenfold.

Candidates who may have once bought ads only on local New Hampshire stations will now consider buying time in the far more costly Boston television market, Murphy said.

"I think it will take $40 million to mount a strong campaign on the air and on the ground in the early states, and some candidates will spend far more than that," Murphy said.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, many candidates will feel pressured to keep pace with the quasi-celebrities such as McCain, Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). All three are expected to set a blistering pace of fundraising.

To some, that notion has been too much to stomach. One was Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who dropped from the field of 2008 presidential contenders last month.

"It's a fundraiser for breakfast, then call time. A fundraiser for lunch, then call time. Then a fundraising reception. And then you can still call the West Coast," Bayh said.

Not everyone in the field is certain that the path to victory will involve raising a quarter-million dollars a day. A spokeswoman for Edwards said that although some costs may nudge up, the former senator does not see much need to match big-number goals being bandied about for the year ahead.

"We need to raise enough so we can compete in all four early primaries," said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri. After that, she said, "if you're winning, the money will follow."

That said, Edwards has scheduled 22 fundraisers in 15 states this month.

Research database editor Derek Willis and staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company