Special Interests, Kerry, Dean and Bush

WNYC radio’s morning talk show, hosted by the superb Brian Lehrer, had as a guest today the author of the book, “The Buying of the President 2004″, Charles Lewis. The book examines the money behind all the Presidential campaigns through the first half of 2003. There’s an update to those figures on PublicIntegrity.org’s website that gives the figures through the end of the 3rd quarter. I did a bit of analysis of the numbers for the top 10 contributors as a percentage of total donations, and using data from OpenSecrets.org for examining PAC contributions as a percentage of total contributions. The results of both comparisons are found here in this little chart:

  PublicIntegrity.org OpenSecrets.org
  Total Raised Top 10 Total % Jan. 31st Total PAC $ PAC %
Bush/Cheney 85,211,717 4,556,870 5.35% 131,774,275 2,071,704 1.57%
Kerry 20,043,633 1,385,707 6.91% 28,209,341 73,784 0.26%
Edwards 14,512,399 2,852,175 19.65% 14,453,092 0 0.00%
Gephardt 13,666,916 2,359,080 17.26% 16,607,735 414,451 2.50%
Dean 25,385,268 235,575 0.93% 41,264,772 22,965 0.06%
Lieberman 11,779,354 762,396 6.47% 13,823,407 211,070 1.53%
Kucinich 3,401,710 408,384 12.01% 6,227,898 16,000 0.26%
Braun 341,669 351,364 102.84% 492,284 30,273 6.15%
Sharpton 283,714 141,900 50.02% 433,142 3,200 0.74%
Clark 3,491,108 45,700 1.31% 13,699,256 37,700 0.28%
TOTALS: 178,117,488 13,099,151 7.35% 266,985,202 2,881,147 1.08%
MEAN: 6,407,278 609,718 9.52% 9,923,329 10,602 0.11%

In regard to special interest money, there is simply no comparison between Kerry and Dean. Dean really does have an argument here, in that his top 10 donors are an order of magnitude smaller in comparison to Kerry. Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the small candidates who haven’t raised much, and Clark’s numbers don’t really mean anything as he hadn’t actually started his campaign during the period covered there.

But between Kerry and Dean, there’s a pretty clear difference.

And between Kerry and Bush, there’s no difference.

That is the point Dean has been making, and it’s a good one.

The right-hand part of the table, from OpenSecrets.org, shows PAC money related to the whole. Overall, in all cases, these are relatively small percentages, but this is because the numbers for individual contributions are not directly comparable. PACs can’t donate more than $5K. Corporations can’t, either. How, then were the previous numbers arrived at? Well, what the PublicIntegrity.org survey does is look at the employers of individual donors, because most companies coordinate donations by their employees to particular candidates. This is how the numbers for the top 10 donors could be so much higher than the numbers for the PACs, because those top 10 numbers represent aggregation of multiple donations from individuals who work for those organizations.

So, it’s important to realize that the numbers for individual contributions, while in the high 90th percentile of the total, actually can hide large contributions from organizations.

Notice that the PAC numbers for Bush/Cheney are only a bit less than 1/3 of the percentage of contributions from the top 10 contributors. That means that PAC money is still a significant amount.

And the story for Dean is still that he is an order of magnitude below Kerry (though Kerry is also an order of magnitude lower than Bush/Cheney). Interestingly, Edwards has reported receiving no PAC money at all (according to his website, he does not accept money from either lobbyists of PACs), but he’s also the viable candidate with the highest percentage of his total contributions coming from his top 10 donors.

The point is that there really are significant differences here, seen within the political system these candidates are working within. One can complain about the political system itself, but I don’t know that it’s fair to condemn all of them for the rules imposed upon them. Given that it’s quite clear that there’s a wide range of approaches to raising money within that political system, the fact that everyone accepts money from so-called special interests does not mean that the special interests control the actions of the candidates to the same degree.

Indeed, there are clearly very large differences between the candidates in exactly how beholden they are to organizations that donate large amounts of money.

And that was Howard Dean’s point about Kerry — he’s vulnerable to charges of the same kind of corruption by money that we see in the Bush administration.