Commentary: The Candidate As A Campaign Spectator

The outcome of the Presidential election may remain shrouded in a Florida fog. But one fact emerges clearly from the mists of Campaign 2000: The hugely inconclusive struggle was the costliest election in history. Candidates, parties, and interest groups spent $3 billion, up a staggering 50% from the $2 billion record set in 1996.

But it wasn't just the amount of money that got thrown around that changed the game this year. It was who was hurling it. Loopholes in election laws allowed political parties to spend unlimited amounts of soft money contributed by wealthy individuals, labor unions, and corporations on TV ads for candidates. And special-interest groups bought record amounts of TV time under the guise of "issue ads," which don't explicitly urge the election or defeat of a candidate but whose acerbic messages are clearly meant to influence voters. The result: Many candidates became spectators at their own campaigns. "Voters were barraged by ads," says E. Joshua Rosenkranz, president of the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank. "But candidates simply were not in control of what was being said."

The use of soft money in advertising began as an experiment in 1996, when President Clinton and the Democratic Party spent $40 million on ads promoting Clinton's reelection. House and Senate party committees copied the audacious ploy in the 1998 midterm elections, but on a smaller scale. This year, with control of both houses at stake and campaign costs escalating, the congressional parties went all-out. House and Senate Republicans took in $85 million, up from $37 million in 1996. Democrats did even better by raising $88 million, up from only $15 million in 1996. For the first time, outsiders and parties outspent the candidates in most of the competitive House and Senate races, says the Brennan Center.

The battle for Kentucky's third congressional district is instructive. There, GOP incumbent Anne M. Northup won a close race against Democratic challenger Eleanor Jordan. Industry groups pushed to re-elect the business-friendly Northup, while labor sought to dump her in favor of Jordan. Between June 1 and Sept. 20, Northup's TV spending totaled $431,000, while the House Republicans' campaign committee and business interests led by drug companies spent slightly more, $499,000, to help. Jordan's spending was even more overshadowed: $194,000 vs. outsiders' $725,000. Says Rosenkranz: "Northup and Jordan were mere proxies in a battle between organized labor and the drug industry."

That's a problem because the drumbeat of powerful forces interested less in serving Kentucky residents than in winning access and power in Washington can mute the candidate's message--or distort it. Michael J. Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C., says that voters often confuse third-party ads with candidate ads, and hold the candidates accountable. "It has to give office-holders pause when they get blamed for ads over which they have no control," says Malbin. Another worry is the de-localization of politics. House campaigns usually are waged over such local issues as easing traffic congestion, improving local school systems, or cleaning up a nearby river. But when vested interests nudge those concerns aside in favor of national matters, voters can lose interest. "This is why Americans become cynical and turned-off," says Scott Harshbarger, president of campaign watchdog group Common Cause. "They think their voices and their votes don't count." Finally, such campaigns become far more bitterly partisan.

A ban on soft money would stall the invasion. Soft money, after all, pays for all those TV issue ads. But while the chances for barring soft money have improved, reform is still a long shot. A prohibition passed the House last year but was stalled by the GOP in the Senate. With the Senate's new makeup, the bill might now have up to 57 backers. But getting the last three votes needed won't be easy. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) will make it difficult for any of his troops to abandon the GOP's opposition to a soft-money ban. Even Democrats may waver, now that they've outraised their GOP counterparts for the first time. "This [2000 election cycle] was not the endgame," says political analyst Charles Cook. "It's halftime, and we're going to see one heck of a fight in 2002." That means more candidates may become bystanders as the party pros and special interests swoop in and take over their campaigns. Hold onto your hats--and your wallets--in 2002.

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