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    Myths and Money: Campaign Stories

    By Dwight L. Morris
    February 5, 1996

    Modern politics is expensive – extremely expensive – and getting more so with each passing campaign. In 1978 House and Senate candidates combined to spend $194.8 million. In 1994, the combined tab rung up by those pursuing seats in Congress exceeded $725 million, an increase of more than $230 million even after adjusting for the effects of inflation. Spending by congressional and presidential candidates may approach $1 billion in 1996.

    According to conventional wisdom, this explosion in spending is a direct result of the modern campaign's ever-increasing dependence on television advertising. In turn, so the theory goes, that media dependence dictates that candidates increasingly turn to the corrupting influence of "special interest money," which finds its way into the system largely through political action committees (PACs). As is frequently the case with conventional wisdom, the truth is considerably more complex.

    House incumbents seeking reelection in 1990 spent an average of $390,387 but invested only $76,109, or 20 percent of their total spending, in developing and airing television and radio commercials. While incumbents who were held to 60 percent or less of the vote in either the primary or general election spent an average of $557,145, just 27 percent of that total was devoted to their commercials.

    Fueled by concerns over a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, spending by the typical House incumbent jumped to $571,089 in 1992, an increase of 46 percent. Although the average outlay for broadcast advertising by this supposedly endangered group climbed to $141,791, that still represented only about 25 percent of their total spending. That percentage held essentially constant during 1994.

    While television advertising plays a much larger role in Senate campaigns than in House contests, there too, mythology has overwhelmed the facts. In 1990 average spending by Senate incumbents topped $4.1 million, with 33 percent of that going to broadcast advertising. Average spending by incumbents remained at $4.1 million for the 1992 campaign, with 40 percent devoted to television and radio ads.

    In truth, the rising cost of campaigns is the result of numerous factors. Once elected, most incumbents never again close their campaign office doors. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), spent nearly $938,000 on his permanent campaign operation in 1991 – a year in which he did not face the voters. That prodigious off-year effort amounted to more than five times what the average challenge challenger spent on his or her entire campaign in 1992. Between January 1, 1989 and December 31, 1993, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's (D-N.Y.) permanent campaign operation spent almost $2 million – nearly $404,000 more than Republican Bernadette Castro spent trying to unseat him in 1994.

    Much of this off-year spending, as well as a considerable amount of election-year spending has little or nothing to do with the campaign at hand. During the six years leading up to his 1992 reelection Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) spent $156,729 to lease and maintain various "campaign cars," including a 1990 Lincoln Town Car, which the Senator leased from a suburban Washington, D.C. car dealer. During that 1992 election cycle, 110 members of Congress tapped their campaign treasuries for a total of $1,689,952 to cover the cost of leasing and maintaining their campaign cars, many of which were driven exclusively in the Washington, D.C. area.

    For his 1994 reelection effort, Rep. James H. Quillen (D-Tenn.) spent just $27,958 on television, radio, and newspaper advertising combined, but he gave $250,000 of his campaign funds to the Holston Valley Hospital & Medical Center Foundation. Six other charitable causes and educational institutions received checks from Quillen's campaign ranging from $50,000 to $200,000.

    In the three weeks preceding the 1994 general election, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) gave away nearly ten times as much as he spent on actual campaigning. He sent $1,000 checks to forty-two Republican candidates across the country, all of whom were challengers or seeking open seats. After the election, he donated $105,500 to fellow Republicans, including $500 donations to 71 newly elected House members.

    During the 1994 election cycle, indicted members of Congress tapped their campaign treasuries to pay legal bills associated with their defenses. Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, accused of embezzling or misusing $724,000 in public and campaign funds, paid his attorneys $1,112,582 from his campaign treasury (he devoted $156,953 to his defense during the early stages of the investigation in 1992). Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.) spent $100,000 of the money donated to his 1994 reelection effort on legal fees associated with his indictment on federal bribery charges (he tapped his campaign treasury for $97,000 to cover such fees during the 1992 campaign).

    While years of shallow analysis and thousands of simplistic news reports have created the impression that PACs are the primary source of the money needed to pay for campaigns, that too is largely a myth. Prior to capturing their party's nominations in 1992, Bill Clinton and George Bush raised a total of nearly $76 million. Less than $50,000 of that was donated by PACs.

    Winning Senate candidates in 1992 raised $146,720,841, with just 27 percent coming from PACs. Victorious Senate candidates in 1994 collected $37,159,246 from PACs, or 22 percent of the $172, 635,774 they raised. Check out the differences between the Top 25 Senate recipients of PAC money and the Top 25 in terms of money from individuals.

    Even successful House candidates, who are frequently depicted by the media and reformers alike as the ultimate captives of special interests, largely defy conventional wisdom. In 1994, winning House candidates received $98,516,704 from PACs, which accounted for 40 percent of the money they raised. These same candidates raised $84.5 million from individual contributors who gave $200 or more, and another $46.4 million in smaller donations – much of it $5 and $10 at a time.

    As a journalist and researcher, I have more than a passing interest in breaking through the conventional wisdom my profession has helped to create, but there is considerably more at stake than the satisfaction of my professional curiosity. Spurred by what they perceive to be the public's demand for electoral reform, members of the House and Senate have introduced numerous pieces of legislation over the past few years calling for the prohibition of PACs and the dispensing of free or reduced-cost television advertising for candidates who would abide by set spending limits. These proposals fall short of real reform because they are based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Banning PACs will not remove special interest money from the campaign equation. Dispensing free TV time will not substantially reduce the cost of campaigns, since many House members already spend little or nothing on such ads. While cosmetic reforms may placate the public for a time, they will serve to heighten public cynicism in the long run.

    This article originally appeared on the ElectionLine Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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