Raising Money Early and Often Is a Necessity

Posted October 14, 2009 at 4:27pm

At the risk of sounding as if I arrived here by covered wagon, I have to say that the pace of fundraising in this election cycle is unlike anything I have seen in my years in Washington, D.C. I have been here 30 years and have been raising money for 28 of those years.

Before the groups that hold themselves out to be our ethical watchdogs take what I am writing to use for their benefit, let me make another observation. Federal candidates must itemize all individual contributions of $200 or more. All contributions from political action committees must be reported. All expenditures must be reported. In addition to quarterly reporting, campaigns must file pre- and post-primary and general election reports. Reports filed by House candidates are easily accessible online. The watchdog groups have no such reporting requirement, and unless they voluntarily disclose, there is no way to scrutinize their income and expenditures in the same way we can easily scrutinize our federal candidates. These groups should be required to fully disclose on a regular basis with the information posted online. But I digress.

The race for funds is obviously driven by the cost of campaigns. The cost has risen steadily even for candidates without competitive races. Campaign managers and other campaign staff, TV and radio consultants, direct mail, survey research and opposition research are all part of the cost. In recent years, campaign Web sites and staff or consultants to manage the Web site have become necessary. Years ago a campaign might conduct two or three polls total. Now, in a competitive race, a campaign may poll weekly or even daily in the last few weeks. Having a fundraising consultant in addition to campaign fundraising staff is common. Federal Election Commission reports once were completed and filed either by campaign staff or by friends who had bookkeeping skills or a CPA who might volunteer for the task. Whether in a competitive race or not, campaigns now retain law firms or consulting firms that specialize in campaign finance reporting. The cost of campaign compliance reporting software, cell phones, PDAs — it all adds up.

But money spent on normal campaign operations is only one factor driving the pace of fundraising — albeit a large one. In some races, money spent by an “outside— group or groups can meet or exceed that which the candidates spend. Third-party spending forces candidates to raise and spend even more. With outside groups involved, you are not just battling your opponent and his or her fundraising ability, you are battling groups that are not on the ballot but have you in their sights and are spending money to defeat you.

The pace at which a candidate raises funds is also driven by the constant rating of campaigns by the political handicappers and the party committees. Not too many years ago, federal candidates filed their campaign reports only twice in odd-numbered years — midyear and year-end. Now, they file quarterly throughout the two-year cycle and that has increased the pace of fundraising. To be from a “marginal— or “targeted— district and not have a respectable campaign balance — indeed more cash on hand than your opponent — will earn an incumbent a meeting or a phone call from the relevant party committee chairman with a strong reminder to get going on fundraising or risk losing the support of the committee. Challengers and those running in open seats also are given fundraising goals to meet. Failure to meet those goals can mean losing committee support. Political handicappers use fundraising as a measure of a candidate’s viability. Great résumé with no money and a candidate will be relegated to a story about a missed opportunity. Self-funders also add to the increased pace of fundraising. They don’t always win, but more and more of them seem willing to spend a chunk of the kids’ inheritance to run for office. Those without the ability to self-fund have no choice but to raise money to stay competitive. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission could very well eliminate one more control on campaign spending and further increase costs.

Several years ago, fundraising in Washington, D.C., was largely confined to Tuesday or Wednesday evening for dinners or receptions. There were some lunch or breakfast events, but the vast majority of events occurred in the evening. When Congress is in session, there are now multiple breakfasts, lunches, receptions and dinners every day other than Friday. There are so many events that for many attendees, it’s one club soda and on to the next of many events that day.

I suspect that most candidates would rather spend less time fundraising. But we are in a permanent campaign and have been that way for some time now. Academic discussions about the evils of campaign fundraising really miss the point. As long as the cost of campaigns continues to rise, a successful candidate will have to raise the necessary funds to compete. Long ago, I heard the line, “This is a bad sport to get a silver medal in.— Money does not guarantee success, but in all but a few cases, the lack of money will guarantee failure.

Michael Fraioli is president of Fraioli & Associates, a Democratic campaign consulting firm in Washington, D.C.