Follow the Money

Candidates spend more time raising funds than talking about issues. Prop B aims to change that.

Farmer figures she will need to raise at least a half-million dollars in order to beat her opponent, because in order to beat her opponent, she'll have to buy media -- lots and lots of media.

"We have a budget of $550,000. We came up with that by putting together a media budget. That's what we'll need," Farmer says. "Our overhead, our expenses are low. I'd put them up against any campaign I've been involved with. I didn't have any paid staff in the primary. Now we have minimal staff, and, as you can see, we have real swank offices," she says, looking around the rented, unheated, sparsely furnished office in Maplewood. "So your budget, for the most part, is based on how much it will cost to reach the universe of voters you need to reach. That's your budget. That's your goal."

Because buying media is the goal, campaign staffers think in terms of ratings information, designated market areas, advertising weighting and cost per point.

Nancy Farmer, Democratic candidate for Missouri treasurer
Jennifer Silverberg
Nancy Farmer, Democratic candidate for Missouri treasurer
Regarding fundraising, Farmer says, "It is all-consuming. It's an incredible grind."
Jennifer Silverberg
Regarding fundraising, Farmer says, "It is all-consuming. It's an incredible grind."

It's the new political vocabulary, and it relies on academic analysis. "Demographic and lifestyle data that characterize the undecided voter can be matched with ratings information to increase the efficiency of the buy," writes Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor at Boston University's College of Communication, in his Political Media Buying: A Brief Guide.

There are even places like Campaign University on the Internet (, which trains candidates to run "today's high-cost political campaign." Campaign University has five "schools," including the College of Strategy and Planning, the College of Fundraising and the College of Tactics and Grassroots Education.

Chuck Miller, Farmer's communications director, throws up his hands in frustration when asked about the strategy behind the campaign's media buys: "We have media buyers and media consultants for all of that."

And what they're saying is that Farmer needs to get on TV. Graves, her opponent, already has ads up and running, ads that went negative on Farmer from the outset. But because location shoots can cost $1,000 an hour to produce and because the campaign is strapped for cash, all she can do is try to get more money.

So every Monday morning, as her staff starts the weekly grind of coordinating faxes, approving direct mailings, verifying new phone numbers and organizing still more lists of potential donors, Farmer picks up the phone and starts dialing.

Many of the state's largest contributors are used to calls from desperate candidates, and these days they readily give to just about anyone who asks. Companies such as Anheuser-Busch, Southwestern Bell and Commerce Bancshares, as well as groups like the Missouri Bankers Association, even give to candidates from both parties in the same race. For example, in the Talent-Holden gubernatorial race, Anheuser-Busch has given $90,000 to Talent and more than $56,000 to Holden. Southwestern Bell has given $21,075 to each. As many as 158 contributors gave at least $100 to both candidates, for a total of $605,000.

Ben Senturia, organizer of Missouri Voters for Fair Elections, says that this two-sided giving is a blatant attempt to buy legislative influence and has nothing to do with the constitutional right of free speech. He points to a study by the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform (MACR) showing that in 1998, the Missouri ZIP code with the highest amount of contributions to state legislative candidates was 65102, a ZIP code in Jefferson City where no people live. It consists solely of post-office boxes belonging to lobbyists, political-action committees and other special-interest contributors.

In the study, the 10 most generous ZIP codes were analyzed. It was found that 31 percent of the total contributions to state candidates came from within their borders, even though only 2.7 percent of the state's population lived there. The per capita contribution in these top-10 ZIP codes was $23, compared with 41 cents in the state's predominantly African-American ZIP codes. "Wealthy contributors have so marinated our elections that we have more of a cashocracy than a democracy," Senturia says. His organization is sponsoring Proposition B on Missouri's ballot next Tuesday. If approved by voters, Prop B would let candidates for state offices avoid raising private funds [see box]. "We need a system that levels the playing field so that all Missourians' voices can be heard over the roar of the lobbyists," Senturia says. "We need elections, not auctions."

The measure would allow candidates to opt to join a publicly funded system, paid for with a 0.0001 percent increase in the franchise tax on corporations with more than $2 million in state assets. Pat Harvey, executive director of MACR, says, "The place where the playing field is most uneven is when it comes to people who would like to run for office but lack a particular willingness or skill to call up special-interest groups who they are going to have to deal with in government and ask them for large amounts of money. If you're not comfortable doing that, or you don't have a Rolodex to know where to start, you're at a distinct disadvantage. It's almost impossible for you to think about running for office in that case, unless you're very wealthy and can fund your own campaign, or you're a born fundraiser.

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