Despite Obama’s Small-Dollar Success, Big Money Still Rules

Posted November 7, 2008 at 3:24pm

With $5.3 billion spent on federal races this cycle, the 2008 campaign season has made it clear that we need a fundamental change in our election system, one that should remake the way we elect Members of Congress in addition to the president.

A review of contribution numbers shows that large donors are becoming more important to Congressional candidates, that elections get more expensive every year and that House Members get nearly 80 percent of their funds from outside their districts.

Much has been made of President-elect Obama’s ability to raise huge sums through donations of $200 or less. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that about 50 percent of his donations came in these small amounts.

But Obama is the exception, not the rule. That was made crystal clear with the news that he had raised raise more than $600 million through September, about $70 million less than the $674 million that all the Democratic and Republican candidates combined raised in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Unlike Obama, Congressional candidates receive most of their donations from supporters giving larger contributions, and the trend is against small donors.

The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute found that House candidates in the 2008 election cycle had received just 10 percent of their donations by the end of March from individuals giving $200 or less, down a third from the 2000 election cycle, while large contributions accounted for more than three times as much of the donations.

The results are similar in the Senate. CFI found that candidates in 2006 raised two and a half times as much money from big- dollar donations as from small contributions.

Further, Members of the House raised 79 percent of their contributions from outside their districts, according to a new study from the nonpartisan research group MAPLight.org. Of the top 20 contributing ZIP codes, 15 are in and around Washington, D.C.

And it’s getting more expensive to run. Spending by Congressional candidates in the 2008 election cycle was expected to reach an estimated $1.9 billion, according to CRP. That is nearly double the $1.1 billion spent in 2000. Keep in mind, incumbents typically win 90 percent of the time.

Add it up. Candidates are raising more money than ever from wealthy donors who don’t even live in their districts. Every election cycle we move further away from the ideal of a government led by citizens representing their constituents’ interests and closer to a bunch of harried fundraisers constantly courting a more narrowly motivated set of professionally vested contributors.

On top of candidate fundraising, bundling, victory funds and combined party committees are driving up the cost of our elections and allowing big donors to give even more money to curry favor with the powers that be in Washington.

There is an alternative to our current money-driven system that levels the political playing field and puts voters first in the process.

“Clean Elections” systems have been adopted in seven states and two cities. Candidates running a Clean Elections campaign must get a set number of modest donations — usually $5 — from people in their community in order to qualify for public campaign money. Once qualified, the Clean Elections candidate adheres to strict spending limits and stops accepting private contributions. That means the donation from the teacher is as important as the one from the corporate chief executive officer.

Clean Elections has proved to be popular. In Connecticut, 81 percent of the next General Assembly will be officials that ran under the Clean Elections program, remarkable considering this is the first general election during which the program was in effect. In Arizona, nine out of 11 statewide officeholders, including Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), have run and won under this new approach. Maine implemented the system in 2000, and today 84 percent of its Legislature is elected using the Clean Elections program.

Capitol Hill is considering the concept, too. A bipartisan bill, called the Fair Elections Now Act, has been introduced in the Senate by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and in the House by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.).

The Clean Elections system puts the focus on ideas and increased communication with voters, a welcome contrast to the current “grab the cash and dash” approach of big-money races. By requiring candidates to raise a large number of small donations to qualify for funds, it brings ordinary citizens back into elections and reduces the need to raise ever larger amounts of money. That appeals to voters and to candidates.

Members of Congress and the next president will have a lot to accomplish come January, and remaking our election system to put the emphasis on voters and not campaign donors should be a priority.

Nick Nyhart is president and chief executive officer of Public Campaign.