Putting An Even Higher Price Tag On Campaigns

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2012 presidential and congressional elections will be the most expensive on record, at an estimated cost of nearly $6 billion. Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner says politicians should spend even more.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

We hear a lot about the influence of money in politics, less often do we hear how the money actually gets spent. For example, last night, World Wrestling Entertainment magnate Linda McMahon crushed former congressman Chris Shays in a Connecticut GOP Senate primary. Between this election and her last one, she has spent $61 million. How? On what? Or digest this: The estimated cost of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, $6 billion, which sounds astronomical. But listen to this: A former Federal Elections Commission chairman named Michael Toner says that $6 billion is kind of a bargain, that there should be even more spending on elections. He joins us in just a moment.

If you have ran for public office, we want you to call us and tell us how much did you spend and what did you get for your money? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. We want to hear from people who ran for office. And as we were saying today, we're not sure if literally anybody is running for dog catcher anymore. But if you are, that's fine. No matter how small the race or how large, we want to know how it worked for you. So Michael Toner joins us here in our studio, Studio 3A. He was general counsel of the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000 and is currently partner at Wiley Rein, a law firm in the Washington, D.C., area. Michael, it's nice to have you with us.

MICHAEL TONER: Thank you so much, John.

DONVAN: So $6 billion, 2012. We're talking presidential and congressional races, the whole ball of wax combined. And you've called that not a whole lot of money for what you get. So make the case. What do you get for $6 billion and why is it worth it?

TONER: Well, there's no question that the cost of running a presidential campaign, setting aside the congressional races for a moment, has really far outstripped the cost of inflation, the rate of inflation in recent years. I think there's a number of factors that are in play here, John. First of all, the cost of communicating in America, a country as broad and diverse as this one, very, very expensive. You think of presidential campaigns today versus, say, 20 or 30 years ago. You have hundreds and hundreds of cable television outlets today. If you want to reach a diverse community in all of these battleground states, you can't just place an ad anymore on ABC or NBC or even CNN. You've got all these channels that people spend a lot of time watching.

I remember in 2004, there was a very interesting story about how George W. Bush was running a lot of ads on the Golf Channel and John Kerry was running a lot of ads on the Oxygen Network. I can confess I never even heard of the Oxygen Network. I guess I wasn't voting for John Kerry. But it shows how segmented the media is, and same thing in radio. You think of the rise of satellite radio, the number of affiliates now in this country compared to 30 or 40 years ago.

DONVAN: So you have to open a lot more advertising accounts.

TONER: You really do. And so that's one factor. I think the second factor is, obviously, in addition to television and radio, you have the huge growth of online advertising which - you have to develop websites and Web videos. I remember as a general counsel of the presidential campaign in 2000, you might look at a couple of ads a week for legal review. Now these campaigns, literally every day, are putting on a couple of new ads in different venues so the volume...

DONVAN: Per day?

TONER: Per day.

DONVAN: Brand new ads.

TONER: Brand new ads. No, some of them maybe Web ads, some of them may - you only purchase a few points in a particular outlet. So the raw volume of the advertising is another factor. I think another factor is a sense that we're in a 50-50 country politically. I really do think that 2000 Florida recount experience where that race came down to 500 votes in a single jurisdiction in a sense that, literally, every last advertising dollar or money that you have for field staff, get-out-the-vote drives, voter registration efforts could make the difference in Virginia and Ohio or Florida. And those states seem to be constantly shifting as competitive as the race is electorally right now. So I think that's another factor.

DONVAN: What kind of staff do you need to pay for this money if you're on the national scale? I'm talking - I guess I'm assuming pollsters, various strategists, and then they have hotel bills and dining bills and travel bills.

TONER: That's a very good point, and that's where you really see a ramp up of in the number of staff from the primaries to the general election because in the primaries, of course, you're focused on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, maybe Nevada, some of the early states initially. Running a national race in all these markets at the same time, you're talking about hundreds and hundreds of staff. Some of them are advance people who help work on putting on the events. Others will be fundraising professionals. Others will be pollsters, political get-out-to-vote specialists, lawyers, accountants.

I mean, I describe a presidential campaign as really facing a lot of the same issues as a small business operating across the country with one difference: Its goal is to spend every dime it has by election day and have no legal problems.

DONVAN: You know, there is that conversation everyone has. It seems every years, when the Christmas decorations show up in the department stores, they say, oh, it's earlier every year. And it seems to me that this one of those conversations that every election cycle we say, oh, my gosh. The money has never been so crazy. Is it true that the money is going up in an exponential rate? Or are we leveling off to some degree?

TONER: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I do think that more and more money is being raised and spent at the presidential level. Look at the data comparing 2012 versus 2008 versus 2000. There is no doubt there's been a significant increase in the volume of money spent.

There's a couple of things that are also going on here. First of all, now, we have two candidates, for the first time since 1972, that are operating outside the public financing system for the general election as well as the primaries. President Obama opted out of public financing in the general election in 2008, but Senator McCain took the public money. The upshot of this is increase fundraising activities to raise money for the general election, and you can raise as much as you can subject to the limits. Often, hundreds of millions of dollars as opposed to just getting a block grant from the government. That's one factor that's going on here. I think the second factor is just the raw cost of campaigning and advertising in this country as well.

DONVAN: So, Michael, the thing that caught our attention about your take on this is that you think that the money is actually rather well-spent, that it's not down the drain and it's not, you know, it's not that much in a certain sense.

TONER: Well, I think a couple of things. I think, sometimes, it's helpful to have a good perspective on how much it costs to really reach voters in America and just how much Americans spend on different activities. We're talking about, perhaps, six or $7 billion being spent at the president level and the congressional level. You know, look at, you know, last year, Americans spent about $7 billion on potato chips...

DONVAN: Really?

TONER: ...which is interesting. They spent about $17 billion on Valentine's Day, which is a wonderful holiday, but, you know, again, that's interesting. They spent about $7 billion on Halloween decorations and candy. I love candies as much as the next person. But, you know, at some level, you know, is the next leader of the country worth at least this much money, you know? And so I think it's - I think the first point I'd make is that I think it's good to look at a broader context in terms of how much you spend on different things.

But the second thing I'd say is it cost a lot of money to be heard in America. You look at the advertising budgets on Madison Avenue for different products. They're very, very significant. Same thing here for presidential campaigns.

DONVAN: Let me give you some numbers that our research department at TALK OF THE NATION has picked up. Only $49 million was spent by all of the parties in the United Kingdom in their last general election, in 2010. In Canada, $8 was spent per person in their 2011 general election compared with $18 for this year's general election in the U.S. Now, Canada is, roughly speaking, on the same playing field we are in terms of technology and number of outlets, and yet we're outspending them almost 3 to 1.

TONER: Yeah. We should see how much they spent on Halloween candy up in Canada. I think the UK example is a very good counterpoint because they have such a different system. As you know, they have a multi-week race really, six, seven, eight weeks where the law really sets those boundaries, but there's no First Amendment in the UK. And it doesn't mean that their system is worse than ours. It's just very different from ours. So I do think it's a healthy counterpoint.

DONVAN: So we've asked our listeners who have actually run for office, no matter what size of race, to give us a call and then talk to us about the money spent, how you got it, where it went and whether it was worth it. So let's go first to Todd in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Todd. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TODD: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure. So what was your race and what did you spend?

TODD: My race was state House of Representatives, and it was a Democratic primary. And I spent - I raised 25,000, and I spent about half of it.

DONVAN: And did you...

TODD: And unfortunately, I was unsuccessful but...

DONVAN: OK. Do - and you think because you didn't raise enough money, you were unsuccessful?

TODD: No. Actually, in my race, it was a Democratic primary, like I said. The money that we spent - my opponent and I pretty much - he outraised me a little bit. He had about a six- or seven-month lead on me as far as campaign time. He was able to raise money for a longer period of time. I think he raised a little bit more than I did. But in our race, we were looking at a target of about 10,000 voters. Now, those 10,000 we - you could pretty much identify 6,000 hard-core voters. And we spent our money - there was no TV, there was no polling. Most of our money was spent on mailers and yard signs.

DONVAN: So...

TODD: And - but I think that in this race, I think it was about who got to the most doors.

DONVAN: Physically, door-to-door thing.

TODD: Yeah, knocking on doors in small - the thing - we call the yard signs a necessary evil. And you have to have yard signs so you look like a legitimate candidate and you have - but most of the mailers - now, if you're talking about 10,000 voters with the postage and the printing, it's - you could easily spend $10,000 on one postcard.

DONVAN: Did you save any of your yard signs?

TODD: I did, I saved them. My kids use them in their social studies class. And I didn't put a year on them so if I decide to run again, I will - you can't save the metal part, but you can save the signs.

(LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: OK. Michael Toner...

TODD: But we - it costs about five bucks a piece.

DONVAN: Five bucks a piece?

TODD: Yeah. Yeah. And...

DONVAN: Michael, on a small scale - I just want to bring Michael Toner. In a small scale, that's actually sounds like quite a bit of money for a yard sign.

TONER: I think maybe I may want to get into being a yard sign vendor.

TODD: Yeah.

TONER: It's a pretty good rate of return.

TODD: And I'm - I got to say, I'm a labor candidate, so I use union printers. And I don't mind paying a little more for a union wage for my printers.

DONVAN: All right. Todd, thanks very much for sharing your story.

TODD: My pleasure.

DONVAN: We want to go to Bill in Concord, New Hampshire. Just one second. Hi, Bill. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Bill, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BILL: Hi, hi.

DONVAN: Hi.

BILL: Thank you for taking my call. Why I'm calling - I'm currently a state representative in New Hampshire and will - I'm going to run for the next election also as a representative. The cost for that is between two and $5,000. But why I'm calling you is because I was heavily recruited to run for the Senate but chose not to because in New Hampshire, to mount a campaign for Senate, you have to come to the table be with - between 50 and $75,000 on the onset. And on some Senate races there was much more spent. And for what you get in return and a job that paid $100 a year, 75,000 seems a little bit heavy.

DONVAN: You're saying that in terms of what you have to get out, in terms of what you earn as - in a salary?

BILL: No, in terms of what you have to raise...

DONVAN: I see.

BILL: ...for a successful Senate campaign and what you get in return. It doesn't make a lot of sense. I mean...

DONVAN: Do you...

BILL: ...you worn out 24 but - anyway...

DONVAN: Do you agree with Michael Toner that it is an expensive thing in America to get your message out?

BILL: It's an incredibly expensive thing. And I guess there has to be a point of the value you get in return for your investment. I mean, there's, obviously, a - some - it's worthwhile to most because they run and they're in office. But it's gotten almost prohibitively expensive for really good, talented individuals to jump into the race. It's just impossible.

DONVAN: All right. Bill, thanks for your call. Thanks for your call.

BILL: Thank you. Yeah.

DONVAN: Thank you for calling us. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

TONER: And one thing, John, I would note also in terms of what campaigns do with this money they're raising. When you think of the - President Obama's campaign, the Democratic National Committee and Mitt Romney's campaign and the Republican National committee, they spend tens of millions of dollars on things like voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives, you know, these messages that you get in the final weeks before an election, you know, make sure to vote on November 5. And you look at the...

DONVAN: Those are the phone calls and the...

TONER: The phone calls and the mailers, like the caller was talking about. And you look at the turnout rate in this country, which, to be honest with you, has been disappointing for - in many elections. Now, in 2008, we did have a very high turnout rate. The highest since 1968, at the presidential level. My view is if we're spending additional money on things like get-out-the-vote, voter-registration efforts, that's money well-spent. And if it leads to a higher turnout, that's a good thing, a healthy thing in American politics.

DONVAN: Let's go to Jessie(ph) in Cottonwood, Arizona. Hi, Jessie. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JESSIE: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

JESSIE: Hi. Thanks for having me. Yeah. I think them I ran for a city council office. And the total expenditure - they have a deal there that if you go over $500, you have to get into more complicated paperwork. So I stayed under that cap. Total, I think that was about $325. I managed to get about 100 campaign signs for 300 bucks with the brackets. I tried to go local with the signs, but they were so prohibitively expensive, and they couldn't get the turnaround time that I could. So I actually did get them off the Web.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSIE: And then I did my own desktop publishing for my three-fold flyer and distributed them through town. And other than that, just did a lot of glad- handing by...

TONER: I need to know, did you win? Did you...

JESSIE: Yes, I did.

TONER: Congratulations.

JESSIE: I win by 1/6 of a vote.

DONVAN: Wow.

JESSIE: It came right down to another person. You know, there's three open seats and four people running. And the other person I think that I was up against, they didn't do any road signs because it's sort of a double-edge sword. Sometimes, people get tired of looking at you and seeing your name, but you have to get that name recognition. What they did is they did...

DONVAN: So Jessie...

JESSIE: ...radio ads and newspaper ads.

DONVAN: Jessie, oh, that makes my question more relevant. Does it - did you prove that money isn't everything it is?

JESSIE: I believe so. You know, it's a small town, but, you know, a lot of that - there's the - the last election, there was the - a pretty strong anti-incumbent sentiment, I believe, in all races in the country. And so I think that sort of helped a bit as well as far, you know, he's a new guy. We don't know him. Let's give him a shot.

DONVAN: All right, Jessie. Thanks very much for your call.

JESSIE: No problem.

DONVAN: Hi, Ashley. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. And I'm afraid I can only give you about 20 seconds.

ASHLEY: OK. I'm actually - I ran for student council secretary in middle school. And I actually brought treats for my class. And I remember my opponent pulling out packets of gum from his pocket, you know, after he saw what I had done. And I think that's what really helped me win my election.

DONVAN: The homemade touch.

ASHLEY: Uh-huh.

DONVAN: All right, Ashley. Thanks very much for your call.

ASHLEY: OK. Thanks.

DONVAN: In our literally last few seconds, Michael Toner, I just want to ask you, you know, do people make decisions about which candidate they think is going to win based on how much they raise? Does the perception of successful fund-raising influence voters?

TONER: Well, I think one reason there's so much focus on money in politics: it's an objective benchmark on how candidates are doing. You know, you can't spin how much cash-on-hand you have or how much money raise in a quarter. But just because you have more money on hand, it doesn't mean you're going to be successful, and these callers make a good point. It also depends on the political environment and how a good candidate you are.

DONVAN: And it can help to bake some cookies from time to time. I want to thank Michael Toner. He served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission in 2006. He is also a former chief counsel to the Republican National Convention, now partner at Wiley Rein, a law firm in Washington, D.C., and joined us right here in Studio 3A. Michael Toner, thanks very much for joining us.

Tomorrow, the results of a recent poll on aging in America a preview shows that were a pretty optimistic bunch. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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