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CAMPAIGN FINANCE WARS

Obama's Huge Haul Should End This Fight

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By Bradley A. Smith
Sunday, October 26, 2008

On Wednesday night, Sen. Barack Obama plans to air a half-hour campaign commercial in prime time on at least three television networks. Whether people click right past it or blame the campaign for a slightly delayed World Series Game 6 or interfering with an episode of "The New Adventures of Old Christine," the ads -- said to cost at least $1 million per network -- are an imposing show of the financial strength of the Obama campaign, which has raised more than $600 million for the primaries and general election combined.

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The most extraordinary development in this year's election may well be the Obama fundraising juggernaut. First, the Illinois senator raised and spent record amounts in winning the Democratic nomination. Then, unlike Sen. John McCain, he decided not to take a taxpayer subsidy to run his general election campaign. Under the law, each major-party candidate had the option of accepting almost $85 million in tax dollars, with one big hitch: Except for a separate fund for legal and accounting expenses, that would be all he could spend. Before Obama, no major candidate had ever turned down this subsidy. Early in his campaign, he said he would take the subsidy and limit his spending if McCain would do the same. But as it became apparent during Obama's primary bid that he was raising money like no candidate had before, he decided to forgo public financing and its accompanying spending limit. He gambled that he could raise and spend more money from private sources. And has he ever.

That's fine by me. Obama's epic fundraising should put to rest all the shibboleths about campaign finance reform -- that it is needed to prevent corruption, that it equalizes the playing field, or that tax subsidies are needed to prevent corruption.

Don't expect those misguided efforts to change the system to end here, though. While Obama is benefiting from a fundraising advantage this year, in most elections since the 1960s, Republicans have held a spending advantage. Democrats always complained that that was unfair. Where are they now? Meanwhile, don't be surprised if some Republicans suddenly become champions of "reform" after this election.

In early September, basing my estimate on Obama's best primary fundraising months, I predicted that he would outspend McCain, but not by a substantial amount. I estimated that Obama could raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million for the general election, which, after deducting fundraising expenses and accounting for the $15 million or so that McCain could raise for his legal and accounting fund, would give Obama a real financing edge of about $25 million -- not insignificant, but not huge, especially given that he would have to devote time to fundraising in states such as California and New York while McCain was campaigning in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. It seemed like a good bet at the time, but then I picked the Tigers to win the American League this year.

In September alone, Obama raised more than $150 million, giving him roughly $225 million for the general election -- before we add in any of his October fundraising. McCain is limited to his $84.1 million government subsidy. Like most observers, I was left slack-jawed by Obama's September cash haul. I served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission in 2004, when George W. Bush and John F. Kerry shattered every previous fundraising record to raise a combined total of $696 million -- something it looks like Obama will surpass all on his own just four years later. I've studied all the great fundraisers of the past, from William McKinley to Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. American politics has never seen anything remotely like this before.

As a Republican, I am not thrilled to watch a Democrat so vastly outspend my party's nominee. But why is Obama's record haul unsettling? Other than partisanship, is there anything wrong with Obama raising and spending record sums?

I don't think so, but that's not necessarily true of the fundraising boom's biggest beneficiary. In theory, Obama thinks something is wrong -- he claims to support campaign finance "reform," including more limits on private contributions and support for taxpayer-funded campaigns. But sometimes, actions speak louder than words. Much louder.

We are constantly told by reform advocates (including, in the past, Obama) that large contributions corrupt the candidates. Indeed, Obama has called money "the original sin" in politics. But the Democratic nominee obviously doesn't feel corrupted by the contributions to his effort. Indeed, campaign manager David Plouffe has said that the campaign is "proud" of the donors who constitute "the backbone" of the campaign. Plouffe and others argue that the reason Obama's fundraising machine doesn't pose a threat of corruption is that his campaign is somehow different: Contributions to Obama's campaign come from millions of small donors, not from "fat cats."

But this is not the full picture. Obama has indeed attracted record numbers of small contributors, many giving just a few dollars over the Internet. By the end of October, however, the Obama campaign will almost certainly have raised more money in contributions of $200 or more than any previous presidential candidate has raised in total contributions of any size. Here's another key comparison: A greater percentage of Obama's funds have come from donors contributing more than $200 than the percentage of funds President Bush raised from such donors in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Don't think $200 is a "large" contribution? Well, Obama is also likely to raise twice as much money in contributions of $1,000 or more than any previous candidate in history. In short, if every small contribution, however defined, were taken away from the Obama campaign, he would still have raised more money in large contributions than any candidate before -- by a very substantial margin. Yet Obama isn't worried about any corrupting effects of all this cash, and neither are his supporters, who continue to open their wallets.

Another concern that some campaign finance reform advocates have is simple inequality. It's just not fair, goes the argument, for one candidate to spend so much more than the other. Oddly, this conflicts with another argument we frequently hear, that a candidate's financial support should reflect his or her popularity. But however one looks at it, the inequality doesn't really seem to bother Obama. After all, he could solve any cash imbalance immediately by deciding to limit his spending. Not much chance of that.

Some object that Obama simply must spend more to offset attacks from "outside groups," such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose ads helped sink Kerry back in 2004. But this is not true either. In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, groups supporting the Democratic candidate have spent more than groups opposing him, while groups supporting McCain have been outspent by groups opposing him. In other words, "outside" groups only tip the scales further in Obama's favor.


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