The cost of democracy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 March, 1999, 12:00am

The United States may be the world's champion of freedom and democracy, but it is also the freest democracy money can buy. It is something of a truism that cash is every politician's best friend, but the money factor is likely to make the year 2000 White House race the least democratic election since all races and both genders got the vote.

It is already starkly obvious the Republican and Democratic establishments are falling over themselves to line up, respectively, behind George W Bush and Al Gore for their party's nomination. And this is with nearly a year to go before the primaries, and 20 months before the general election.

While there is still ample opportunity for a challenger to shift gear and frighten the front-runners, such an outsider will have to get his or her fund-raisers working 24 hours a day for the next few months to have even the slimmest chance of competing. Inflation alone cannot account for the fact that every presidential election becomes far more expensive than the one that preceded it.

Bill Clinton and Bob Dole spent more than US$100 million (HK$780 million) in their 1996 campaigns, and probably a lot more if you account for the cash that parties can spend on 'issue' advertising which does not directly name candidates. This time, Vice-President Gore is aiming at a fund-raising target of US$55 million, and will probably end up spending more.

The reason campaigns get progressively more expensive is the predominance of non-stop polling to gauge voter opinion, followed by scatter-gun television advertising. Mr Clinton's former political guru, Dick Morris, perfected this technique so well in 1996, that by the time the Dole campaign had raised the cash to respond to a summer advertising blitz by his rival, the public opinion war (and thus the election) was effectively already won by the president.

Political purists who claim money is only important as long as the candidate has a strong message are beginning to look out of touch; in a system where polling and advertising are king, style is inevitably going to triumph, in large measure, over content. Next year, another factor will be conspiring to make quick, early fund-raising even more crucial to prospective presidents. A handful of states, including the biggest prize of all, California, have moved up their primaries to early March, because they were fed up with seeing contests already decided by the time their own votes came around.

After the two initial, early February primaries of Iowa and New Hampshire - Mickey Mouse states which only figure on America's great radar screen once every four years - there will come a Super Tuesday to end them all, when California, New York, Texas and other vote-rich states go to the polls on the same day.

In effect, candidates will now only have three or four weeks to build from a good New Hampshire showing into a final victory, or turn a weak New Hampshire performance into a come-from-behind triumph. Unlike previous campaigns, that means the bulk of their cash has to have been raised all at once, beforehand. This can only favour front-runners, and disadvantage the minnows.

Ironically, tougher fund-raising rules enacted after Watergate and other Nixonian scandals have only made it even harder for the smaller fry to compete. The amount of 'hard money' a candidate can raise is limited to US$1,000 per donor. That means that to stand a reasonable chance, a campaign would have to get the maximum from at least 30,000 donors - an arduous task that can only favour the politicians with the biggest organisations and best name-recognition.

One can tell how far the campaign system has deteriorated into a money chase when a dark-horse candidate like Republican Congressman John Kasich is already being written off by pundits because he hopes to raise only US$18 million this year. To help candidates along, the government provides matching public funding of up to US$13 million per candidate - but in return, a strict limit is placed on overall spending.

Rather than be constricted by a spending ceiling, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes turned down public money in 1996, and spent US$35 million of his own fortune trying to derail the Dole candidacy. He is almost certain to do the same next year - possibly leading other candidates to follow suit.

This system almost makes Mr Gore unassailable. His aides are reportedly nervous he will have only one Democratic challenger - former senator Bill Bradley - rather than a host of rivals all vying for the same donors. But despite Mr Bradley's obvious qualities, and his attractiveness as an anti-Clinton alternative, the truth is that Mr Dole's fund-raising organisation is so powerful, and the party establishment so firmly behind him, that Mr Bradley faces an uphill task.

Even on the Republican side, where no less than 11 candidates have declared or are likely to declare their hand, Texas Governor Bush could well leave his rivals in the dust. Backed by the influence of his father, the former president, and his brother Jeb, Florida's governor, Mr Bush's campaign has already amassed a list of 120,000 potential donors.

The only thing that is certain is that a year is more like a millennium in politics. While Mr Bush and Mr Gore are well aware it is not over till it is over, a large wad of cash is sure to make the fat lady sing in their favour.