Commentary

‘08: Big Ticket

Presidential hopefuls made headlines last week when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both announced they’d raised record sums. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney also raised more than $20 million in the first quarter of 2007.

Shortly after the numbers became public, predictable laments began. The presidential candidates supposedly had been bought by the highest bidder - they were, in the words of a Washington Post editorial, “beholden to well-connected financiers.” But the truth is exactly the opposite.

In fact, money follows the message of a candidate and his or her prospects for winning the presidency. That is especially clear with Obama, who emerged from nowhere to raise $25 million by offering hope and charisma to Democratic activists starving for both.

Critics also complain that the public doesn’t get a chance to hear the messages of candidates who can’t raise sufficient funds to make a race. But when Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, dropped out of the Democratic race for lack of funding, party activists had heard Vilsack’s pitch - and decided not to support him. Either they didn’t like his message or they thought he’d be a weaker candidate than his competitors for the nomination.

People also worry that we are spending ever-larger sums on presidential campaigns: Overall, the candidates and parties are expected to spend over $1 billion on the 2008 primaries and general election - a sum that, taken alone, is unimaginable for most people.

But put that $1 billion in perspective: The next president will strongly influence how the federal government raises some $12 trillion in taxes over the next four years. And discretionary federal spending - that is, discounting “automatic pilot” programs like Social security - during those years will total about $3 trillion.

Spending $1 billion to keep voters informed about candidates who’ll help manage trillions seems like a pittance - without even considering the fact that he or she will also make countless life-or-death decisions, not least by becoming commander-in-chief when the nation is at war.

Aren’t the candidates setting fund-raising rec- ords? Yes, but that’s not surprising.

Generally speaking, Americans spend about the same proportion of national wealth on each presidential election. Since the economy grows continually, each presidential election tends to set a record for campaign spending.

Spending for the 2008 race may grow even faster since both parties have wide-open races. Open contests usually attract more candidates, who raise more money. Record spending thus corresponds to record competition for the nominations of the two parties. This strong competition is a reason to celebrate, not to lament, the state of American democracy.

Indeed, studies have shown that more spending on elections means better-informed voters. John Coleman of the University of Wisconsin compared contests for congressional seats - and found that voters were better informed about the candidates in the most expensive races. He also discovered that spending helped the “information poor” voters more than it did the “information rich.” That is, those who knew less about the candidates and the issues gained more information from high spending than did voters who were already well informed.

Consider, too, that this year’s record fund-raising reflects the free choices of many individuals. It is a serious choice demanding a real sacrifice in money in support of their hopes for the nation. Americans have a right to give to the candidate or party of their choice or not to give at all.

Those who complain about record fund-raising often recommend government financing of campaigns - as in the partial public funding for U.S. presidential elections. In such systems, the government taxes citizens to provide funding for candidates and political parties.

This offends liberty twice: Taxes are not voluntary, and everyone is forced to fund candidates and causes they deplore. Those who prefer not to give at all are forced to do so. Not surprising, only 7 percent of Americans support the U.S. system of taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns.

In short, record fund-raising is cause for celebration, not concern. It informs voters, fosters competition and indicates support for candidates.

Most of all, it shows that Americans are free to support the candidates and ideas of their choice. That’s a freedom well worth preserving.

John Samples is director of the center for representative government and author of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform.