Running for office isn't cheap. Senate campaigns in states such as North Carolina can set you back $10 million, and a Presidential bid totals more than 10 times as much. Even by those expensive standards, President George W. Bush's ability to spend more than $200 million between now and Labor Day 2004 would leave all previous records in the dust. With no GOP opposition, Bush can use the primary season to mount a lavish dress rehearsal. The Bush spending machine will try out new campaign technologies, soften up voters in key swing states, lay the groundwork for sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts -- and attempt to leave the Democrats in a futile game of catch-up going into the general election.
Of course, there will be TV time aplenty. From March, 2004, until the Republican convention in early September, the President's reelection campaign will blitz the airwaves. (The campaign has to burn through primary funds before the convention so it can qualify for public funds in the general election.)
It won't be just the quantity of Bush ads that will stand out. The campaign will have the resources to replace hackneyed 30-second spots with one- or even two-minute vignettes on local stations and cable. "The 30-second spot is less and less effective," says GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz. Longer pitches aren't cheap: Luntz says a 60-second spot costs 70% more than the standard half-minute. But the Bushies can afford it.
Just as important will be where those commercials run. With Bush's war chest, he can hit hard in states he lost in 2000, including Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The campaign might also advertise in such likely Democratic states as New York, Illinois, and California, forcing Dems to spend scarce dollars protecting turf.
While Bush will spend plenty on media, he'll have lots left over to put in place an ambitious get-out-the-vote effort -- denying Democrats that traditional edge. "We will be dedicating substantial resources to our grassroots network," says Scott Stanzel, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Bush's cash will also buy the best information about voters and their preferences, which in turn will allow the campaign to customize its message. "We've found that it's not always a good idea to reach out to people based on party affiliation but rather on issues that we agree on," says Blaize Hazelwood, political director of the Republican National Committee.
New technology will let the Bushies nail down those connections more precisely than ever. Luntz points to automated polling systems that can call people, ascertain a respondent's positions on 10 key issues, and deliver a follow-up call emphasizing points where the President's agenda dovetails with the household's priorities. "In a sense, it will allow [Bush] to personalize the campaign even while it is national in scope," he says. All that cash could also make direct mail much more effective: Voters may find videos or CD-ROMs in their mailboxes instead of brochures.
With the Bush reelection effort equipped to spare no expense, Democrats are looking at a bleak picture. Emerging from a punishing primary fight, the nominee will immediately be pummeled on the airwaves -- with little money left to respond. And Republicans will leverage sophisticated voter information to sway undecideds and insure a pro-Bush turnout on Election Day.
Some political analysts downplay the GOP's cash advantage. "I'd rather have a hot candidate with a hot message than all of the money in the world," says Phil Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline, a political-strategy firm specializing in Internet communications. That may be -- but all the money in the world certainly won't hurt Bush. Florida Senator Bob Graham's Presidential campaign is playing a name blame game. It's citing moniker confusion for the increase in his negative poll ratings. Team Graham suggests South Carolina Democrats are mixing Senator Bob up with Republican Lindsey Graham, the state's junior senator. And in New Hampshire, aides say some voters are confusing Senator Bob with Republican Phil Gramm, a '96 White House hopeful. Graham is viewed favorably by 19% of Granite State Dems vs. 29% unfavorable -- up from 7% in January, according to American Research Group (ARG) polls. Only Al Sharpton does worse. North Carolina Senator John Edwards, also looking for more recognition in New Hampshire, took to the airwaves this summer. Now, 86% of voters are aware of his candidacy, according to ARG. But Edwards' positive ratings haven't budged, and support has dipped from 3% to 2%. Maybe it's better to be unknown than unloved. Will Arnold Schwarzenegger be California's next governor? You can bet on it -- and the odds are in his favor. Betonsports.com, one of the biggest gambling sites, has an Arnold win at 1-2. At BoDog.com, $10 on Arnold nets only $11. For a real payout, $10 on comedian Gallagher promises a half-million at BetWWTS.com. Governor Gray Davis can take some consolation: At 4-1 on BoDog, his odds are better than the Republican he beat in '02, Bill Simon (5-1).