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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 10:55 GMT
Analysis: Buying an election

The US electoral process is dominated by money to a far greater extent than other major democracies.

Money is needed to buy advertising time and the services of pollsters and consultants who increasingly shape the electoral battle.

With few restrictions on political contributions, rich individuals and companies have been able to wield enormous power - usually to the benefit of incumbents.

The 2002 mid-term elections were no exception. Indeed candidates spent a record $1bn - including over $300m in television advertising alone - to get elected.

All change?

Now this is all supposed to change.

A new campaign finance reform act, the McCain Act, comes into effect as soon the election is over.

It is designed to prevent "soft money" contributions from rich individuals or companies dominating the electoral process.

It led to a frenzy of spending by both political parties in this election in order to use up their existing stock of campaign contributions.

But will it work in the future?

Unlikely.

The parties, campaigning groups, and companies are already combing the act for loopholes.

And it is already the subject of a series of fierce court challenges by groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Coalition, on the grounds it limits free speech.

The new Federal judges nominated by the Republicans, and now likely to be quickly confirmed, could well be sympathetic to this argument.

Rich individuals

The new legislation will not prevent rich individuals from using their own money to finance their run for office - an increasingly widespread phenomenon in US politics.

This time businessman Tony Sanchez spent more than $70m in his unsuccessful bid to become governor of Texas, partly because his Democratic opponent in the primary, whom he outspent 10 to one, has endorsed his Republican rival.

In 2000, the junior New Jersey Senator John Corzine, who retired as head of investment bank Goldman Sachs with a $300m windfall, spent $63m of his own money winning his seat for the Democrats.

The rich's role in politics is not new. But the sums involved in running a major political campaign, especially in a big state like New York, California, or Texas, are so huge that fundraising is often the key to success.

Big spenders

The Republicans have been most dependent on the "soft money" now banned by the McCain act.

For example, they would lose the estimated $60m that the pharmaceutical industry spent in the 2002 elections to prevent the election of Democrats.

The drug companies feared that Democrats would favour expanding the government health insurance scheme, Medicare, to cover prescription drugs - which might mean government regulation of the price of medicines.

Overall, the Republicans outspent the Democrats by an estimated $180m to $120m in soft money in 2002.

Governor spending
NY Republican incumbent, Pataki: $40m
Challenger, McCall: $12m
California Democrat incumbent, Davis: $60m
Challenger, Simon: $16m (est)
(Source: press reports

Thirty years ago, spending by parties was measured in a few millions, as party organisations, not paid consultants, got people out to vote.

But now consultants decide how to mobilise voters through polls and focus groups, target advertising markets, and then find methods such as using commercial call centres to persuade people into the polling booths.

It is a far cry from the way elections used to be run, and there is evidence that the voters are getting fed up with it.

It also means that incumbents, who usually can raise the most money, are relatively invulnerable.

Only a dozen seats changed hands out of 435 in the mid term Congressional elections.

Loopholes

There are a number of ways that the new campaign finance act can be evaded.

Firstly, it only applies to Federal elections, not state contests.

So both Democrats and Republicans are busy creating separate legal entities for their state party organisations in order to ensure they still can receive soft money.

Secondly, it is unclear how much it will actually restrict the activities of the big membership organisations, like the National Rifle Association or the American Association of Retired Persons, to get out their vote.

They will be still be free to urge their own members to vote for or against candidates, a crucial contribution when elections have such low turnout.

And finally, companies are planning to take a leaf from labour unions and use their own employees to get out the vote.

They argue that they have just as much a right to urge their workers to vote for their pocketbooks (especially now that so many own shares in their own company) and back pro-business candidates

And they believe that if they can persuade their workers to vote, they can also persuade them to contribute to the parties - mainly Republican - that will back their cause.

With companies already employing sophisticated tactics to keep out labour unions - whose declining membership is a big problem for the Democrats - it is only a small step for them to employ consultants to persuade their workers how to vote.

Corrosive influence

The influence of money is corrosive on politics.

It makes the voters cynical about the motives of their politicians and less likely to vote.

And it makes the politicians more beholden to the "special interests" - the lobby groups that have contributed heavily to their campaigns - than is healthy for the policy process.

The lobbyists are particularly able to influence legislation as it goes through the committee stage, ensuring their own corporate interests are protected.

In the Enron scandal, for example, it emerged that the company had given contributions right across the political spectrum.

This has made people fed up with the political process - and nothing the Bush administration is planning to do now that it controls Congress is likely to change their minds.

Money and politics, it seems, are probably here to stay.


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14 Feb 02 | Americas
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