Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal


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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2000

ELITE DONORS SWAY OHIO PRIMARY RACES

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES CLAIM GRASS-ROOTS EFFORT, BUT CONTRIBUTORS USUALLY ARE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL

By DAVID KNOX
Beacon Journal staff writer

More than 7 million registered voters in Ohio will get a chance to voice their choice for president in the primary election March 7.

But long before the polls open, a much smaller group already has cast ballots -- with its wallet.

That tiny group -- numbering no more than a few thousand -- provided most of the Ohio money to finance the presidential primary campaigns, according to an Akron Beacon Journal analysis of contributors to the four front-running candidates.

That's not something the candidates -- Vice President Al Gore, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- want to admit.

When Bush announced Sept. 9 that he was posting on the Internet a complete list of contributors, the Republican front-runner challenged Americans ``to look for themselves to find out who is helping to fund my campaign.''

``What they will find is that their friends and neighbors, grass-roots people in every state in this nation, are responding to my message of prosperity with a purpose by sending in $20 or $50 or $100 or a maximum of $1,000 to help elect me president,'' he said.

Bush is wrong on almost every count.

His boast of a campaign financed by a broad cross-section of ``grass-roots people'' is wildly off the mark -- even allowing for the exaggeration of political rhetoric, according to the Beacon Journal analysis.

The profile that emerged from the examination of information on the Bush Web site on the nearly 2,000 Ohioans who donated $1.56 million through the first three-quarters of 1999 hardly resembles the average American:

Bush's community of givers is an elite world where:

  • Nearly two of three contributors gave $1,000 or more.

  • Nine of 10 employed donors are business executives and managers, lawyers, doctors or other professionals.

  • Half of all women who provided occupations stated they are homemakers, averaging $877 in donations.

  • Retirees average more than $500 each and students gave nearly twice that amount.

    Bush isn't alone in drawing his financial support almost exclusively from the upper reaches of society.

    Similar profiles

    A comparison of the Ohio campaign records through Sept. 30 -- the latest available federal data containing detailed information on contributors -- found remarkably similar profiles of donors.

    The proportion of employed contributors identified as business managers, administrators and professionals differs little among the four candidates, ranging from 94 percent for Gore to nearly 98 percent for McCain.

    Three of four Ohio workers are employed in sales, clerical, service and factory jobs. However, they make up less than 5 percent of the donor rolls.

    The comparison included only contributors who gave more than $200 because federal law doesn't require occupational and employer information from those who give less. Bush is the only candidate to release details of his small-sum contributors.

    But a look at Ohioans listed on Bush's Web site who gave under the limit found only a somewhat less lopsided pattern: Business managers and professionals made up 83 percent, sales employees accounted for 12 percent and clerical workers only 5 percent.

    Not a single service or blue-collar donor was found.

    ``These are not assembly line workers. They are the CEOs, presidents, doctors and lawyers. It sure ain't the secretaries,'' said Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington group that tracks money in politics and its effect on elections and public policy.

    ``The reality is the money that is fueling the presidential elections are not the $25 contributions, they are the $1,000 contributions.''

    The center's analysis of all contributions to the four front-runners through Sept. 30 found 75 percent of the total came from individuals who gave $1,000 or more.

    Exceeding the $1,000-per-individual federal limit is easy, Makinson said. Because the Federal Election Commission allows ``redesignation'' to a spouse, a check for $2,000 can be split between husband and wife.

    ``That's the most common way of going over the limit,'' he said.

    Doubling the limit

    Donors also can double the legal limit by giving another $1,000 to a candidate's ``General Election Legal and Accounting Compliance'' fund.

    Originally designed to pay the cost of complying with the federal campaign financing laws, such funds can't be used until after the parties' nominating conventions, when ordinary fund-raising ends and the winners switch over to public funding of their campaigns.

    The only downside to the compliance funds, Makinson said, is that the losers at the conventions must return the money to the donors.

    Notably, only Bush and Gore had active compliance funds. The Beacon analysis of Ohio contributors found $37,750 given to Gore that way and $13,500 to Bush.

    All the candidates emphasize that the majority of their contributors give less than $250 -- the amount required to qualify for federal matching funds. But the fact remains that the total contributed by such small donors is dwarfed by the pile of cash amassed from the big-money givers.

    Contributions of less than $200 accounted for 10 percent or less of the totals reported by Gore, Bush and Bradley, the center found. Of the four front-runners, only McCain stands out, with 28 percent.

    ``McCain has a lot of broad support from small donors -- much more than the others,'' Makinson said.

    The Beacon Journal's analysis of Ohio donors who gave more than $200 found much the same pattern: 70 percent of the contributors to Bush, Gore and Bradley gave at least $1,000. About 4 percent gave more.

    Again, McCain broke the pattern, with only about a quarter of his contributors in the $1,000-and-up club.

    McCain's comparative lack of top-dollar donors shows up in a dreary bottom line, where his total of $69,577 from Ohioans is less than 5 percent of the $1.56 million Bush took in.

    The dependence of candidates -- regardless of party -- on a small, wealthy minority raises significant questions about the presidential election process: Before a single primary vote is cast, the field of candidates with a realistic chance of winning already has been whittled down.

    Quiet contributions

    The chosen few are the candidates able to quietly raise millions in contributions months before most voters are thinking about their choice for president.

    No one has demonstrated the ability to amass cash more than Bush.

    The $67 million that flowed into his campaign from across the nation in 1999 is nearly five times the amount garnered by McCain, and more than the combined totals of Gore and Bradley.

    The difficulty of raising that kind of money -- for Bush, an average of $224,000 a day since formally entering the race March 8 -- goes a long way toward explaining the predominance of the wealthy among the donor rolls: It's quicker, easier and cheaper to tap them than to reach out to the average voter.

    ``Direct mail is enormously expensive,'' said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a national expert on political fund-raising.

    The most practical way to efficiently raise large amounts of cash, Green explained, ``is get people to raise it for you -- to call their friends and get a whole bunch of people together with the candidate at a fund-raiser.''

    Green said that getting people to buy a ticket to a $1,000-a-plate dinner is surprisingly easy. ``The giving of the donation is seen as a social obligation.''

    Several contributors agreed the reasons for giving were as much social- and business-related as political.

    ``We were approached by a very good friend who went to college with Bradley,'' said M.J. Ehrensberger, president of Leverage Solutions, a Cincinnati computer consulting firm who gave $500.

    ``That doesn't mean we're going to vote for him, but we'd like to see him run,'' he said. ``I would have done the same thing if we have friends who knew McCain.''

    The vice president of a Cleveland branch office of a Dallas- based firm said she contributed $250 after receiving a letter from the company's president saying that ``a personal friend and strong supporter of Bush . . . suggested this is something he was backing and maybe we ought to take a look at it.''

    The woman, who asked not to be identified because of her position, added, ``I'm not 100 percent sure that's who I'm going to back. I might vote for a Democrat.''

    Green said the trend to ``front-loading'' the presidential primaries early in the year gives a critical advantage to candidates who can raise large amounts of cash early.

    Eighteen states, including Ohio, have scheduled primaries within five weeks of New Hampshire's leadoff primary Feb. 8.

    ``People have to have their money already collected,'' he said. ``Once the primaries start, they will be spending hand-over-fist. There won't be time to raise money.''

    Despite the danger of money overshadowing issues in the election, Green argued that ``the process is much more democratic than before we had primaries'' and when local political bosses wielded more power.

    But Green added that the need to fill deep campaign coffers mainly from among the upper-income classes does pose a serious problem.

    ``The effect of this is it restricts the range of participation to one segment of American society,'' he said. ``The view of blue-collar and clerical people is not being heard at all.''

    The assessment of the Center for Responsive Politics' Makinson was harsher.

    ``This is the dirty little secret,'' he said. ``The first primary has already taken place . . . and you had nothing to do with it.''


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