In White House Race, Kerry’s $75M Won’t Equal Bush’s $75M

Posted March 10, 2004 at 4:11pm

While most political reporters, television producers and political insiders are focusing on the Bush campaign’s huge war chest and financial advantage in the pre-convention period, they have overlooked a potentially more interesting story: the Bush campaign’s financial positioning for the general election. [IMGCAP(1)]

Although the presidential nominee of each major party receives $74.6 million in public funds for the general election, the Kerry campaign will actually already be at a financial disadvantage by the time both parties have formally nominated their candidates.

The discrepancy follows from the fact that Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) will receive his $74.6 million as soon as he officially becomes the Democratic nominee on the evening of Wednesday, July 28, while President Bush will receive his $74.6 million on the evening of Sept. 1.

In other words, Kerry will spend his grant of public funds over a 14-week period, while Bush will have only nine weeks in which to spend the same amount. Kerry will be able to spend an average of $5.3 million per week between his nomination and Election Day, while Bush’s campaign will average almost $8.3 million per week from the time he accepts the GOP nomination in New York City until Election Day.

These figures could understate the discrepancy between the two campaigns in the final three and a half months of the campaign, depending on how much money the Bush campaign spends in August, when it is still spending its “primary” funds.

But does the differential matter? It may not, since each of the presidential campaigns and its national party will combine to spend far in excess of the $74.6 million figure.

Remember, both national party committees will have more than $15 million in so-called “coordinated expenditures” to spend on their respective presidential nominees’ campaigns. In the case of the Democratic National Committee, how — and when — those expenditures are made will be determined by the Kerry campaign, which could use those resources during August, when Bush is still spending primary funds.

In addition, the DNC is, in the not too distant future, likely to set up a “joint fundraising committee” with the Kerry campaign, much as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has done with a handful of its Senate candidates.

The Kerry campaign will receive a share of the joint committee’s funds, while the DNC will receive the bulk of the money. Since the committee’s primary purpose this year is to elect Kerry, all of its expenditures will actually be pro-Kerry expenditures.

Perhaps most importantly, following from the recent Supreme Court campaign finance ruling, the DNC can also engage in a pro-Kerry direct-advocacy campaign (on television, for example) that is independent of Kerry’s campaign.

Yes, that’s right. In the bizarre through-the-looking-glass world of campaign finance laws, both national committees can spend money not only in coordination with their presidential campaigns but, at the same time, independently of the campaigns. While the committee can compartmentalize in a way to keep the two operations — the coordinated and the independent — separate, the most senior people at the committee are inevitably aware of both.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned outside group spending on behalf of Kerry. Those groups could carry some of the Democrats’ TV load in August (if they raise the money they hope to), allowing the Kerry campaign to keep most of its public general election funds for September and October.

At the end of the day, both major party nominees will have enough money to get their messages out, and key, late-deciding swing voters won’t start to focus on the choice for the White House until after Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the general election campaign.

Interestingly, some Democrats I have talked with seem more worried about a potential Bush-Kerry general election spending gap than do Republicans.

“The money matters,” one veteran Democrat insisted flatly. Even if Kerry doesn’t spend much money on television advertising in August, the Democratic nominee has campaign expenses that can’t be avoided, including staff, headquarters and travel. All of Bush’s spending in August can be paid for with pre-convention dollars.

Republicans, on the other hand, often note that a financial discrepancy between candidates matters only if one of the candidates doesn’t have enough cash to get his or her message out. With all of the money the parties and outside groups are raising, and with only a dozen states or so in play in the presidential contest, both Kerry and Bush will have the resources they will need to reach key voters.

Still, every political consultant and strategist will tell you that he’d prefer to have more money, not less. Money allows campaigns to try many different things, some of which may make a small difference. And since the presidential contest could be decided by a few hundred or a few thousand votes in three or four states, every dollar counts.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.