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The Campaign For President: Is It Worth The Cost?

Campaign news this week focused on the war chests of Sen. Hillary Clinton ($26 million), Sen. Barack Obama ($25 million), Mitt Romney ($23 million) and Rudy Guiliani ($15 million). Reading these numbers — and recognizing that this fundraising is going to go on for another 18 months — I feel sorta like I did when I added up the storage in all our external hard drives and realized we have a terabyte of data. And that's not counting the desktop, laptop, and various portable drives.

It's a dual feeling of amazement (geek: wow!) and puzzlement (what's in there that's so important?).

About's Guide to Liberal Politics, Deborah White, wonders if our "first multi-billion dollar presidential campaign [is] really something glorious to crow about."

I say it's not.

But first, a word (or two) about those numbers.

We pay the President of the United States $400,000 a year (it doubled in 2001). That sounds like a lot of money — but relative to the cost of a campaign, it's peanuts. Think about it: candidates have more than $100,000 in their war chests right now. Experts are forecasting a billion dollar campaign.

To raise a billion dollars in one year means generating almost $275,000 each-and-every day. Or $11,460 per hour. This is insane.

There's another way to look at today's $400,000 salary for President, and that's to compare it to Fortune 100 CEO pay. It looks pretty shabby — regardless of how you feel about the relative merits of CEO pay.

And there's yet another measure where it looks very shabby. That's when you take historical presidential salary data and convert it to 2005 dollars. Then we learn that William Howard Taft (1909) raked in the equivalent of $1.6 million. Richard Millhouse Nixon (1969), $1.1 million.

Was there a storm of controversy at the time of the salary increase in 1909 and 1969? I don't know. I'm pretty sure there'd be a storm of controversy today, should Congress decide to raise the salary of the Presidency to more than a million dollars.

So why isn't there a storm of controversy over the high price of political campaigns in general and the presidential campaign in particular?

Rolling Stone contends that a lot of the money is wasted on consultants (they point fingers at Democrats here) and expensive television ads:

The party's campaign strategists operate under contracts that would make Halliburton blush. While their GOP counterparts work for a flat fee on presidential campaigns, Democratic media consultants profit on commission, pocketing as much as ten percent of every dollar spent on TV ads. It's a business model that creates "an inherent conflict of interest," concedes Anita Dunn, who served as a strategist for Bill Bradley in 2000. The more the candidate spends on TV advertising, the more the consultant cashes in. And that compensation is hidden from public scrutiny: Federal campaign reports reveal only what a campaign spends on ads, not how much the consultants skim off the top.

But more and more of us are tuning out — literally (doing something else, probably on the Internet) or figuratively (zapping through those commericals with Tivo or Replay) or practically (we don't show up to vote).

What if all that energy, effort and money was put to something productive? You know, like education (volunteer! donate!) or public television (volunteer! donate!) or youth groups (volunteer! donate!). Or the candidates might, instead, spend their energy doing what they were elected to do: govern.

Previous attempts to limit campaign donations have been rejected by the courts as free speech infringement. But Congress (and the states) could change the rules by fiat (ie, by law). We could have a system more akin to Britain's parlimentary elections if we desired.

About Kathy

  • moonraven

    Considering that the past presidential campaign here in Mexico was the longest and most expensive in world history, and the piss poor reactionary human rights abuser president was the result of the hate campaign and massive election election fraud, I would say that all campaigns should last maybe 30 days tops and have a very low ceiling of expenses allowed.

    (Here there are folks whose entire income is what they can rake off from the campaign monies.)

  • Sisyphus

    To put the numbers into perspective, the entire amount of money spent on the presidential election every four years is roughly the same as the amount of money the federal government spends every four hours.

    Still a lot of money. But considering the stakes for this country and even for the entire world, present and future, I think it’s a rather small price to pay.

  • moonraven

    A small price to pay for WHAT, precisely….

  • Sisyphus

    “A small price to pay for WHAT, precisely….”

    To pay for replacing the administrative branch of government every four years. Or would you rather keep the same personalities in power indefinitely? I suppose we could just draw someone’s name out of a hat to save money. But the risk is that we’d end up with an administration that is either incompetent, corrupt, or does not represent the best interests of the American people — maybe all of the above. What’s your point? :)

  • Zedd

    Kathy

    Good point. What is really interesting is that its not the money that they spend that convinces us to vote for them. Its the media time. If they can get to the media outlets and articulate their ideas well, they are in there. That was Obamas rise to fame.

    All of those corny bus rides just don’t do it for most people.

    However the use of the Internet is a new frontier. That endeavour doesn’t have to cost all that much.

  • moonraven

    There is a reason I have voted in the following elections only:

    1972–McGovern (We were living in Massachusetts, the only state that went for McGovern, and had bumper stickers that said DON’T BAME ME–I’M FROM MASSACHUSETTS)

    1980–Whoever the Libertarian candidate was

    1984–I wrote in Jesse Jackson–at least he was somebody I KNEW

    My point, Sisyphus, is that you ARE keeping the same folks in power forever. And you get less and less from your taxes–except for humiliation.

    Not worth a tinker’s dam, I say.

  • troll

    US federal elections do nothing more than support a myth of democratic legitimacy for our system of corporate socialism (here read fascism)

    boycott them

  • Clavos

    troll, c’mon:

    boycott them

    Thereby abandoning the fight to the very forces you want to defeat?

    Doesn’t sound like a good tactic to me.

  • moonraven

    The system is designed to keep those forces in power.

    I agree with Troll–except I went further and just don’t like in the US cesspool any longer.

  • troll

    Clavos – I look forward to both wars and elections to which no one comes

    what do I care which fascists sit in the big chairs passing laws to govern my behavior – ?

  • Sisyphus

    “My point, Sisyphus, is that you ARE keeping the same folks in power forever.”

    Almost. Many of the same corporate contributors, influence peddlers and interest groups dominate the system — the electoral process. But these are not elected positions. What you really want is a candidate who doesn’t listen to his or her major campaign sponsors and their lobbyists. Good luck with that, though some of our current crop of candidates appear to be more responsive to grassroots supporters than others. And this is the type of candidate who appeals to me, but time will tell.

  • moonraven

    No chance. Not even that of a snowball in hell.