The Best Votes Money Can Buy

Facts and figures of the most expensive election campaign in U.S. history

The numbers swirling around Tuesday's voting are both absurdly huge and astonishingly small. The presidential race broke the billion-dollar barrier. The Center for Responsive Politics, one of the best massagers of Federal Election Commission data, estimates that no less than $1.2 billion was spent in the presidential election alone. And that's a conservative estimate because of an unprecedented flood of spending by advocacy groups.

Much of the money gushed through this campaign season's favorite loophole, Section 527 of the federal tax code, but some of it remains uncountable because it was funneled through yet another part of the tax code, Section 501(c), that doesn't require full disclosure.

Overall, an estimated $3.9 billion was spent on congressional and presidential campaigning, compared with $3 billion in 2000.

illustration: Mirko Ilic

The personal-spending champion of 2000 was a Democrat, Goldman Sachs mogul Jon Corzine, who spent $60 million of his own money to win himself a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey. The champion spender of 2004 is liberal George Soros, who wasn't running for anything. Soros spent almost $25 million just on Section 527 "electioneering" committees, much of it to pay for ads and voter mobilization.

And now for the ridiculously small number: Of the estimated 220 million Americans 18 and over, far fewer than 1 percent gave any money whatsoever. As of October 25, a total of 988,049 people had given at least $200 (the smallest amount itemized) to candidates, parties, or political action committees. That's not even one-half of 1 percent of the number of adult Americans. (See my Bush Beat item here.)

George W. Bush garnered the biggest share of money from corporations and from mailing lists pioneered decades ago by such heroes of the right as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. (See my May 2000 Voice story, "Left Behind," about how the radical right got hooked up to the Internet long before progressives caught on.) Democrats were further hampered by the end of the era of "soft money," thanks to the McCain-Feingold legislation passed by Congress since the 2000 race. That ban on unlimited donations to the national parties by corporations, unions, and wealthy people just forced liberals to find another way to raise money to offset the GOP's corporate edge: The solution was to funnel money through Section 527 of the tax code. Call it hard money, call it soft money, but it was big money. In general, as long as the money wasn't spent on ads that specifically advocated the election or defeat of a presidential candidate, they were allowed. Huge amounts of 527 money also went into get-out-the-vote efforts. The GOP tried to get the Federal Election Commission to squelch that funding mechanism, but the FEC refused last May to do so, and Republicans started forming their own committees, notably the Swift Boat Veterans.

It's still unclear how the figures will shake out. Steven Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics says the people who gave to 527s were not necessarily the same people who gave "soft money" contributions in the old days. There will likely be an outcry against the new loopholes, and they might be closed. But others will open up. As Weiss notes, "Every time a new law is passed, there's an adjustment. The amount of money spent? We do expect it to increase."

A $3.9 Billion Breakdown

Following are details of the estimated $3.9 billion spent on the just-ended federal campaigns:

Individual contributions to candidates and parties: $2.5 billion

PAC contributions to candidates and parties: $384 million

Candidates' self-funding: $144 million

Section 527 spending (on federal elections): $386 million

Public funding of presidential candidates and party conventions: $207 million

Convention host committee spending: $139 million

Other spending (including loans and independent expenditures): $102 million

SOURCES Center for Responsive Politics, Federal Election Commission

Top 50 Zip Codes

The parties are on the Upper East Side, and you're not invited.

Far and away the biggest-spending single zip code in the United States for donations to political parties, candidates, and PACs is 10021, the area of Manhattan once commonly known as the Silk Stocking District, stretching from 61st to 81st streets, Central Park to the East River.

As of October 25, its residents had given $17.7 million to federal candidates, parties, and PACs. (That doesn't even count contributions from PACs. Nor does it include any of the nearly half a billion dollars given during this campaign to Section 527 "electioneering" committees for federal, state, and local political campaigns and ballot issues.)

In 10021, $11.6 million went to Democrats and $4.7 million to Republicans. (The rest went to PACs or third-party candidates.)

People in the Lenox Hill zip gave more than twice as much as the next two zips combined—their neighbors, that is. Second and third on the list were the two areas that flank the folks whose servants mail their packages at the Lenox Hill post office: 10022 (just to the south) and 10028 (just to the north). Fourth on the list is 10024, just across the park on the Upper West Side.

Democrats got the preponderance of money in all those zips. But Republicans made out well, too.

Different watchdog groups do their analyses at different times, and all the money's not counted from this campaign season, let alone the votes. But a midsummer subtotal by the analysts at Public Campaign reveals that John Kerry had gotten $1.7 million from Lenox Hill up to that point, while George W. Bush had gotten $1.3 million.

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