Something Missing From CNN’s Campaign Finance Report


Campaign finance stories are often difficult to tell in print, let alone on television. You often need charts and graphs to illustrate where the money is coming from, you need to explain the rules of the system and then the ways to get around those rules, and generally you end up with far more correlation than causation: special interests give money to politicians who favor their agendas, but absent quid pro quos, you end up with politicians avowing that contributions had nothing to do with their votes.

That’s one reason, I think, why election coverage often focuses more on the horse race and the superficial issues than on more substantial issues, like why are particular interests or industries donating thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to a particular candidate? Who are the folks packing rooms with 30 or 50 or 100 people all writing $500, $1,000 or $2,000 checks to the candidate? And what will these people want come January?

Earlier today, we got an email at the office telling us that CNN was going to do a story on campaign finance. The alert advised us,

Could money decide who wins or loses in November? Find out who’s raising the big dollars in the midterm races. Tune in at 10 p.m. ET.

John Roberts reported the segment on Anderson Cooper’s 360 show. It ran for about five minutes or so starting around 11:40 eastern (sorry, I’d be more precise but I’m unable to set the clock on my VCR). Well, let’s see: according to the report, both parties are raising hundreds of millions of dollars, with the GOP having an edge. Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush both attend a lot of fundraisers, and Bush has raised the most money (they didn’t make clear that he’s raising it for party committees and other candidates). On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton has raised the most money–more than $40 million, most likely much more than she’ll need to win reelection in November. DNC chair Howard Dean wants to spend money rebuilding the Democratic party’s grass roots, Sen. Charles Schumer would like Democrats to raise as much money as Republicans, RNC chair Ken Mehlman says that his committee will spend more than it ever has in a midterm, and so on and so forth. Both parties love money.

No mention was made of those who actually donate that money, no hint given that some of those generous folks may well feel like a favor is owed them come January, no concern uttered that those $870 million Republicans have raised or the $757 million that Democrats have raised have a certain number of strings attached–and that members of the next Congress, regardless of party, will be under some pressure to make good on some of those investments.

I think it was in the runup to the 2004 presidential primaries (actually, in the first quarter of 2003) that I noticed that campaign finance reporting was beginning to follow the horse race paradigm: it’s the poll that counts, it’s how much money you’ve raised that counts, and not how you’d address, say, Medicare or tax reform or the budget. That’s certainly how CNN addressed it.

And to think, I could have watched Family Guy instead…