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Every day, it's the same: Working the plan. Working the lists.
Places, ages, race. Names, numbers, addresses and dates. There are ZIP-code lists, income lists and voter-registration lists. There are lists sorted by special interests, ethnic surnames and sexual orientation; lists alphabetized by profession; lists sorted by who gave and who got, when and how much. The lists are organized, reorganized, merged and then purged to be used for direct mailings, phone banks and e-mail blitzes. For people like Nancy Farmer, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer, the lists are so coveted that it's hard to look beyond them.
But she must look beyond them, because from that hallowed ground grows the money, and it's the money, more than anything else, that feeds the campaign. Compared with the money, Farmer's experience as assistant state treasurer and state representative earns little attention, and her plans for the office are like vague academic theories. Intention and skill don't count as much as dollars and cents, because every day, as she scours the lists for new donors, Farmer's purpose is held hostage by this fact: In nine of 10 Missouri races, the candidate with the most money wins.
And in this race, Farmer is behind. During the primary, Farmer faced off against two Democratic contenders, so she spent all but a few thousand dollars winning that race. Heading into the general election, she faces a Republican opponent, Todd Graves, who amassed so much money -- almost $942,000 -- that he was investing $100,000 chunks in short-term certificates of deposit. By the end of September, Graves had raised $1 million to Farmer's $468,000, so now, to catch up, to even get close, Farmer must rely on the lists more than ever. And she hates every minute of it, wishes her ideas -- rather than her lists -- mattered more.
"You use lists of contributors to your past campaigns and lists of people who you know contributed to other people's campaigns," Farmer says. "We use issue lists; we use the lists of organizations who endorse me; we collect lists by interest, by levels of contribution, by profession. Right now, we have mailings out to people who've contributed to other Democrats, to people who've contributed to me in the past, to people who've contributed to (not-for-profit) groups.
"And the reward that these people get for contributing to someone is that they get 10 additional solicitations, because everybody is using everybody else's lists. I'll call people in the afternoon, and I'm not kidding -- I'll be the third person to call them that day. Think about it. The parties are trying to raise money; the House-campaign committee is trying to raise money; the Senate-campaign committee, the five statewide candidates, the state senators, the state-House candidates and all of the Congressional candidates are all trying to raise money."
This almost riotous level of political fundraising has spawned all sorts of new businesses that promise to help candidates pull in more contributions than their competitors. Farmer's campaign, for instance, contacted a company called Aristotle Publishing (which it did not hire) that generates voter lists according to geographic areas, voting frequencies, income ranges -- any way the client wants them sliced. The company, which has offices in Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., will even add a "Fat Cat" symbol next to the names of people who have contributed $200 or more to other candidates or causes. "When a little dollar sign pops up on the screen next to a voter's name," the company's literature states, "you'll know you're dealing with a Fat Cat."
Aristotle also creates Web pages where people can contribute to a campaign using a credit card; the company takes information gained from the charge card and spits out facts about the donor, including age, sex, estimated income and listed phone number. "You'll raise more money than you ever thought possible," Aristotle predicts, once the company helps the candidate convert "contacts, supporters, volunteers and VIPs into repeat contributors."
Another company, Advantage Campaign, designed Web pages for U.S. Rep. Richard "Dick" Gephardt (D-3rd) and Rick Johnson, a Democrat from House Springs running for state representative, where viewers can contribute by credit card or through the use of an online check. Johnson, whose Web page was selected by Campaign & Electionsmagazine as one of the five best in the country, says the pressure of raising money for this election reminds him of his naval service on two nuclear ballistic-missile submarines during the Persian Gulf War.
"I was astounded at how much it cost to run for state representative," Johnson says. "It costs about twice as much to run a campaign as a state rep even makes in a year. I'm looking to spend about $60,000, and that's because to send out one piece of mail districtwide is $5,500 just for a state-rep race. And, as they say in the world of marketing, you've got to get your name out in front of people at least seven times before they even remember it. It's tremendously hard, dialing for the dollars. You really rely heavily on your family and friends and people recontributing."
The 10 Republican and Democratic candidates running in the statewide races -- governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer -- have raised more than $11 million just since the August primary. In the governor's race, Democrat Bob Holden and Republican Jim Talent raised more than $10 million between them during the primary period, with Holden carrying $3.2 million over to the general election and Talent carrying over $2.9 million. In September alone, Talent spent $1.1 million on "media buys"; Holden spent $1.3 million. Conversely, in that same month, Talent spent $293 on "grassroots expenses" and Holden spent $298 on "yard sign distribution" and $184 on "parade supplies."
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 realswank 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.
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 (www.campaign-university.com), 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.
"What that means is that the playing field is so uneven, we screen a lot of people out of running for public office for this artificial reason," Harvey continues. "By creating an alternative stream of resources, people who have something to offer as public servants but who aren't good at dialing for dollars can still run for office. It removes a barrier to running for public office that should have nothing to do with your ability to serve."
Business interests don't think so. Opposition to Prop B is being led by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which claims that the proposed system would allow "radical fringe candidates to buy commercials airing their extreme views and would encourage more people to file just because they can get easy money." The Chamber, which did not return the RFT's phone calls, also stated in an August press release that the proposed system would set up a "multimillion-dollar slush fund for politicians" and that the best way to reform campaigns is through more open disclosure and "letting current reforms run their course."
"[Prop B proponents are] proposing that Missouri give politicians the power to direct millions of our tax dollars to finance their campaigns -- to spend the money any way they want," Chamber president and CEO Dan Mehan said. "Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse."
Voters in four other states have approved laws similar to Prop B. In Maine, the first state to actually implement such a law, the number of candidates running for office has indeed increased. But reformers there don't see that as a bad thing. This year, one-third of the candidates in Maine opted to join the publicly funded system, and as a result -- in part, at least -- the number of contested primaries increased by 40 percent. In addition, "clean candidates" are coming from both the Democratic and Republican ranks, and more third-party and female candidates are running than ever before.
State Sen. Susan Longley is a three-term Maine Democrat who decided to run as a clean candidate this year. In addition to ending her constant pursuit of money -- "schmoozing," as she puts it -- Longley says her acceptance of public funds has eased her conscience. "In a close vote, there are sometimes reasons on both sides to vote either way," she notes. "And when it's a vote where there are big donors on one side and not the other, I found that voting my conscience, well, it's harder to factor out the influence of money.
"This clears it up. It clears up my thinking so that I don't have to worry that what I'm doing is because I got a big contribution. It guarantees a more conscientious vote, a more pro-constituent vote. That's hugely liberating."
Working the plan. Working the lists. Monday-Friday. On Saturday, Farmer's staff meets to add up the numbers. On Sunday, they meet to work out the coming week's fundraising plan. The campaign has already spent more than $3,000 on phone bills and about $116,000 for postage and direct mailings to solicit more money. In September, it spent $110,000 to buy airtime but has yet to pay for the commercial's actual production.
Farmer doesn't blink when asked whether running a statewide political campaign is what she thought it would be:
Then she leans forward. "I had no idea it would be like this," she says. "It is all-consuming. It's an incredible grind, just constant, and I don't think there's any argument that it takes away from other aspects of the campaign."
Like meeting with constituents. Like delivering speeches. Like debating with her opponent about the best way to handle the state's money.
Farmer, who supports Prop B, leans back in her chair and sighs: "Raising money is what you do."
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