KAI RYSSDAL: We have — by my check of the calendar this morning — 250 days left until the Iowa caucuses. The first time that anybody will cast a vote or raise a hand that actually counts in the 2008 presidential cycle.
And yet to look at the political money race, you'd think we were there already. The major candidates have been dialing for dollars for ages now. A month ago, they reported earnings for the first three months of 2007: $150 million.
I use the word earnings there on purpose, as our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale explains.
JOHN DIMSDALE: Like a corporation trying to polish its books for shareholders, candidates have their own accounting tricks to puff up their financial performance.
This year, Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama all counted contributions that came in a few days after April 1 as first-quarter donations.
Another sleight of hand, says University of Virginia campaign scholar Larry Sabato, is to delay campaign payments to vendors, consultants or staff members.
LARRY SABATO: Most of the staffs of the candidates are very dedicated to getting their candidates elected president. They all imagine themselves having a wonderful office in the White House. Therefore, they're willing to make some sacrifices. Certainly, they will delay getting that paycheck by a day or a week if it's necessary to pump up the total that their candidate has raised.
Another trick is to downplay expectations. Campaign managers predict they'll get lower contributions than what they know is coming in. And then when the campaign reports a higher number, it looks even more impressive.
While juggling the figures gives a misleading picture of where the campaigns actually stand, no one knows just how much of it is going on.
Former Federal Election Commission chairman Brad Smith doubts it's a substantial amount. Besides, he says, most of the tricks are legal. Or at least not illegal. And the chances of getting caught are low.
BRAD SMITH: All of the presidential campaigns that take government funding are audited. But of course in this campaign, most of the major candidates have said they're not going to take government funding, so they will not automatically be audited. And the number of campaigns the FEC audits is relatively small. It's sort of like the IRS with tax returns. Most people know, can feel fairly comfortable they won't be audited.
Smith blames the press for focusing too much on the financial horse race for the White House.
At the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for more openness in politics, executive director Ellen Miller says the money pressures are getting worse.
ELLEN MILLER: It shows how desperate candidates are to show that they have a healthy amount of money in their coffers, you know, in a particular quarter, that they're willing to play these games even for, you know, $50 or a hundred or a half a million dollars.
Should there be a Sarbanes-Oxley accounting standard for political campaigns?
Former FEC chairman Smith says there are already too many rules.
SMITH: This is a very esoteric skill. The reporting requirements are quite detailed. The instruction manual is dozens of pages thick. And in fact, many smaller campaigns, many congressional campaigns, will have volunteer CPAs do their treasury work. And you'd think a CPA would, could be able to do this. But I hear all kinds of complaints from them that it's virtually impossible if you're not a professional in the field.
The current campaign reporting period closes June 30, with reports due two weeks later. Next year, as primaries get underway, presidential candidates are required to file fundraising reports every month.
In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.