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In Presidential Race, TV Ads Were Biggest '96 Cost By Far

By Ira Chinoy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31 1997; Page A19

It has been 36 years since the celebrated debate between a poised John F. Kennedy and an uncomfortable-looking Richard M. Nixon demonstrated the potential of television in the quest for the White House.

Today, a recurrent theme in the controversy over money and politics is how much presidential campaigns are driven by the desire to reach Americans in between scenes of their favorite television shows.

An analysis of campaign spending totals in the last race lends credence to the conventional wisdom that TV advertising is a driving force in presidential contests. While President Clinton and GOP nominee Robert J. Dole dished out $118 million between them on non-media expenses in the primary and general elections – such as polling, fund-raising, telephones and rent – the largest single cost was the combined $113 million they spent on advertising, almost all of it for television.

In the general election campaign alone – the period from the nominations in August to Election Day in November – electronic advertising accounted for more than 60 percent of each candidate's total.

"That is significantly higher than the shares we saw in the 1980s," said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor and expert on campaign finance. "The spending clearly shows how media has come to dominate presidential campaigns. In combination with the tens of millions of dollars spent by the parties on advertising, this represents a dramatic growth in media spending in 1996."

To track spending by Clinton and Dole, The Washington Post enlisted the Campaign Study Group to compile a database from records the candidates filed with the Federal Election Commission. The campaigns spent nearly $232 million in more than 100,000 transactions from January 1995 through December 1996.

That sum includes $150 million in taxpayer financing – about $13 million for each candidate in the primary season and $62 million each for the general election. It also includes a combined $63 million from contributors – to the primary campaigns and to funds the candidates use to comply with election laws. And it includes party money the candidates were permitted to use in the general election, with the GOP spending nearly all of the allowed $12 million while the Democrats allocated $6.7 million.

Those amounts, however, do not include another $69 million that the parties say they spent – $45 million by the Democrats and $24 million by Republicans – on "issue" ads that critics allege were thinly veiled attempts to aid the presidential candidates and circumvent spending limits. The ads were largely financed with unrestricted "soft money" contributions, including hefty corporate and union donations that cannot be made directly to presidential candidates. The money was typically funneled through state parties, which could buy the ads using a higher percentage of soft dollars.

The issue ads – and the fund-raising practices that paid for them and for other party activities – have taken center stage in the current furor over campaign finance.

With the exception of their costs for complying with election laws, Clinton and Dole were each limited to spending $37 million in the primary season and $74 million in the general election. Those limits left Clinton with an advantage. Without a primary season opponent, he could spend far less on raising money and had much more left for advertising.

The timing of the national conventions also left Dole having to cover two more weeks of his general campaign out of the same size pot as Clinton. With 20 days left, Dole had less than $14 million while Clinton had $25 million. The Clinton campaign poured $17 million of that into ads.

The final ad blitz was ordered in part because the campaign was not taking victory for granted, said Clinton campaign manager Peter Knight. But he said those ads also were aimed at states with tight House and Senate races in an attempt to get Democratic voters to the polls.

Corrado said even staged campaign events – on which Clinton spent $8 million and Dole $10 million – often are aimed less at reaching local crowds than generating sound bites and television images for a nationwide audience on the evening news.

In the current debate over campaign costs, some proposals have focused on providing candidates with free or discounted broadcast air time.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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