The Democratic convention won't be held for more than a year, but the party's nominee for the 2004 presidential race is being selected right now, in a handful of living rooms and salons in Georgetown, the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Hollywood. That's where the "wealth primary" — the quadrennial dance between fund-raisers and fat cats — is taking place, a competition that determines who will be anointed the party's front-runner and what issues will make it onto the table.
The public may be unaware of the process, but campaigns take the wealth primary very seriously. And they should. In every presidential race since 1984, the candidate who had raised the most money by the end of the year prior to the election — before a single primary vote had been cast — went on to win his party's nomination.
This fact is pretty damning. And that doesn't make it look for progressive issues such as electoral reform, campaign finance reform, and sunshine laws to be included on the platform. Unless these fat cats sign on to it. And, in the case of campaign finance, this may be not be a likely occurrence.
This is no way to select the next leader of a democracy. The only way to get rid of the wealth primary is a voluntary system of full public financing in both the primary and general elections for qualified candidates who demonstrate a broad base of support among average voters. The existing, outmoded funding system now used must be replaced. Lawmakers would do well to take a page from the success of "Clean Money, Clean Elections" systems in Arizona and Maine, where more than half the candidates for state office — including the current governor of Arizona — participated in a public funding option that freed them from any postelection obligations to major donors and the special interests they represent.
Under the Clean Money, Clean Elections approach, candidates who agree to abide by strict spending limits and to raise no private money can qualify for a grant of public funds for their campaigns. That funding level is based on what it cost to run a competitive race for that level of office in previous cycles. However, if participating candidates are opposed by big-spending, privately financed opponents, or targeted by independent expenditures, they can receive additional public matching funds — up to a limit — to help keep them on an equal plane. First, they have to raise a large number of very small qualifying contributions from voters in their district.
What's most fascinating to me is how this approach would be implemented at the presidential level.
Under a presidential Clean Money, Clean Elections system, candidates would qualify not by collecting a certain amount of money, but rather by collecting a qualifying — and quite large — number of contributions. The amount given could be as little as, say, $5, replacing an emphasis on the amount collected with an emphasis on numbers of people participating. Once candidates qualified, then, as with the current system, they could keep getting additional public funds up to the primary spending limit as long as they kept competing in primaries and got at least 10% of the vote.
In other words, instead of the wealth primary and the bundling of $2,000 checks, candidates would be required to show broad and deep support from individual citizens — not wealthy special interests. Such a system would reduce the time candidates spend on fund-raising so they could focus on voters and issues. It would create equal opportunity among candidates able to collect large checks from wealthy donors and those candidates with large numbers of supporters of only average means, or less. And it would encourage more citizens to get involved in the democratic process of electing the president, reducing the obscene dependence of future presidents on a tiny core of the wealthiest Americans.
It's time to take the "for sale" sign off the White House.
Or is it just the opposite? Be sure to read next post, which argues from a constitutional basis for allowing no restrictions on political communications and media.