The American Way: Campaign for Votes, and Dollars

Politicians have raised campaign money as long as America has had political campaigns. We review some of the high points in the history of U.S. campaign finance.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The first milepost of the 2008 presidential campaign is a little more than a month away. At the end of March, the candidates will file their first finance reports with the Federal Election Commission. It's important for a candidate to show, if not astonishing, then at least respectable fundraising totals. And on this day when we buy cars and discount mattresses in honor of past presidents, the money race made us wonder this: How did presidential candidates raise money in the old days? Did they need to raise money?

Well, Peter Overby, NPR's correspondent on the campaign finance beat, is here with me right now.

And Peter, how far back can we go with this question, presidential fundraising?

PETER OVERBY: Well, we can go back before there were presidents, before there was a United States. George Washington kept pretty good records all through his life, and one of the records that he kept was the first time he ran for the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the Virginia state government, in 1757 he spent 39 pounds on what he called treats for voters that came to 160 gallons of rum and drink for 391 voters.

SIEGEL: Giving a different meaning to political party altogether.

OVERBY: Yes.

SIEGEL: Who did he have to win over with that rum?

OVERBY: He had to win over landowners. And it's worth noting that 20 years after Washington did this, James Madison ran for the Virginia legislature and tried to get elected without buying all these treats and he lost. He complained about it and the legislature said that it wasn't bribery, it was just a custom and he was out of luck.

SIEGEL: Well, let's flash forward then to the age of Jackson. By 1828, states were giving the vote to people - men, at least - who did not own property, so that must have changed things a bit.

OVERBY: That's right. It was the beginning of mass campaigns, when you started to have advertising going out to voters generally. And the person who really took advantage of it was the guy running Jackson's campaign, Martin van Buren. So he went out and raised money. We don't know how much. But he did more fundraising and more spending because he had to reach more voters.

So then you have a gradual expansion of campaign spending over the next years, reaching out to rich people and also to government employees through the spoils system.

SIEGEL: Abraham Lincoln. Did Abe Lincoln raise a lot of cash to run for president?

OVERBY: Not by today's standards, no. His campaign cost about $100,000, which would be roughly $2 million in today's dollars, which is a bargain for today.

SIEGEL: After the Civil War, well, immediately after, some people have called the Era of Good Stealings in Washington, and later the Gilded Age. What was political fundraising like in those days?

OVERBY: There was a shift that evolved. You still had the spoils system, and you still had rich people and you have the raise of corporations. The rich people were close to the corporations and realized that it was just as easy and somewhat less painful to give corporate money to politicians instead of giving your own money. So towards the end of the Gilded Age, the spoil system went away. You had Civil Service reform. You couldn't put the bite on government employees for contributions anymore. And that's when you really saw the rise of the wealthy and the corporate interests in presidential politics.

SIEGEL: And this is when the money race really takes off?

OVERBY: Pretty much. What's considered to be kind of the first modern campaign was William McKinley's in 1896. His campaign manager was Mark Hanna. One of my quotes, Hanna said, "Here are two important things in politics: One is money, and I can't remember what the second one is."

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, reform as we came to understand it in the '60s and '70s and later had a lot to do with limiting the size of the contribution that somebody could make.

OVERBY: Yeah. And reform didn't necessarily start out that way. It started out requiring disclosure after Election Day, and there was very little in the way of enforcement. You had a series of laws that were passed without much happening. All through this, you had presidential campaigns heavily dominated by the wealthy. For instance, in 1968, Eugene McCarthy came in from the left.

SIEGEL: He was challenging Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination, an anti-war candidate.

OVERBY: Right - ambushed LBJ, drove them out of the race. His campaign was basically financed by 11 people, and that gets you to Watergate. Richard Nixon was elected in '68, started raising money for 1972. One of his big donors was W. Clement Stone, an insurance executive from Chicago. Stone and his wife contributed about $2.9 million to the Nixon campaign. That would be about $14 million today, which is still - even by today's standards - a lot of money for one source.

SIEGEL: Well, which brings us to where we are today, when candidates talk openly and reporters like yourself actually cover the process of raising money for the presidential campaign, and the candidate will probably report that they raised a lot of money - not always the case to be so open about this process.

OVERBY: No, not at all. This is a thoroughly recent development. I dug out a tape of a phone call of Lyndon Johnson. This is from the 1964 campaign, where he's talking to an aide. Johnson is unhappy because the newspaper just ran a story in which the Democratic National Committee was bragging about how much had been raised for the Johnson re-election effort.

(Soundbite of recorded phone call)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: They claimed they picked up a million dollars out yonder. They don't do it. They didn't pick up $500,000 net, and I put the net figure, because if we pick up that, people are not going to want to give money.

OVERBY: LBJ is saying we should lowball the number.

SIEGEL: Right, because we don't want the people to think that we don't need their money.

OVERBY: Right. Nobody thinks that way anymore. The person who has the biggest number is going to be the first one to announce it. And the person who has the smallest number is going to get around to letting us know later.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Peter Overby, now our man on the money and politics beat. Peter, thanks a lot.

OVERBY: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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