It is conventional political wisdom that you can't make a serious run for the Presidency unless you know the names of at least twenty wealthy people who can raise big money for your campaign. Political pros say this is a very elite group -- numbering no more than a few hundred around the country.
In recent elections, fewer than .33% of Americans made a political contribution of $200 or more. But some of those
people who did contribute gave a lot. Who are they? Why do they give? And most importantly, what do they get in return?
Those are the questions FRONTLINE and correspondent Robert Krulwich set out to answer in "So You Want To Buy A President?" Krulwich and company spent months interviewing politicians, campaign insiders, big contributors, campaign finance experts, and studying federal records. These pages contain some of what they learned about the "rules of the game."
Since 1974, the Presidential race has been federally funded. But to qualify for that public money, candidates still must raise millions of dollars on their own--to pay for media ads, polling, travel, staff, and all the other expenses of a modern political campaign.
It has always cost a lot to run for President, but these days it costs far more than ever before. Abraham Lincoln spent $100,000 in 1860. In 1988 George Bush and Michael Dukakis spent a total of $92.2 million. Before it's all over this November, President Clinton and his Republican challengers are expected to have raised and spent more than $500 million. (See MONEY CHARTS)
The Golden Rolodex
There are many ways to raise that kind of money, but the easiest and most efficient has always been to court rich givers.
They help candidates in lots of ways. They host fund-raising dinners, make phone calls and send letters to other potential donors. They encourage their employees to give. They bundle their checks together with those of other contributors. They send large sums directly to the two major parties and give to political action committees, inaugural committees, and legal defense funds connected to politicians. Sometimes they lend candidates the use of their private jets. Sometimes they put the wives of candidates on their corporate boards.
The list of the heftiest political givers is always changing, but there are some people who have given big money year in and year out to candidates of both parties. Their names are mostly unknown to the public (See THE PLAYERS) but the men running for President this year know them very well and have taken their cash for years.
You Don't Give for Nothing
Both politicians and big donors are quick to deny contributions buy favors. Certainly many give only because they believe in a candidate.
But many of the biggest givers have received special consideration from politicians they have helped: ambassadorships, appointments to Presidential panels, and invitations to the White House. Some have gotten the ear of elected officials on important public policy issues. Others have received tax breaks and subsidies for their businesses that have run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Know the Rules...and the Loopholes
Federal law puts specific limits on how much you can give to a Presidential candidate: an individual can only give a $1,000, a PAC $5,000. But as long as there have been limits, there have been legal ways around them. Federal campaign law has a number of huge loopholes and this year's candidates are taking advantage of all of them. (See GLOSSARY)
So Can You Buy a President?
Maybe not. The modern fund-raising game rarely stoops to anything so crude as a quid pro quo; paying a politician for a favor is still bribery and bribery is still illegal. And as former Presidential advisor Joseph Califano told FRONTLINE: ''I think it's fair to say that just about every President on any large issue will ultimately do what he thinks is right because there's that enormous tug of history. But I do think you can buy policies of one kind or another along the way. "
Politicians meanwhile have been quick to respond to public cynicism about campaign finance and lobbying but slow to actually do anything. Last summer President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands and agreed to set up a commission on campaign finance reform. It still hasn't happened.
In THE INTERVIEWS, political analysts and some thoughtful politicians offer their views of who is buying influence and at what price to the American people. They have different ideas on how to fix it, but they all agree the current system is broken.
Even a member of the political establishment as savvy and experienced as former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Robert Strauss was grim about the current state of the romance between money and politics. He told FRONTLINE:
"I think there is a distrust in the American public in the American political process. I think there is a lack of confidence. I think there is suspicion about people that their interests are being disadvantaged by financial contributions from rich people and narrow special interests. And I don't [think] that is going to stop until we reform the campaign finance process in this country. That's not my opinion, that's a historical fact."