TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: John McCain and Barack Obama have been talking a lot about the economy the past couple of weeks. The back story of the presidential campaign is about money, too, just in a slightly different way: which candidate has more of it and where’s it coming from?
As the total amount spent by all the candidates this election cycle nears a billion dollars, the last two left standing are looking far and wide for contributions.
We’ve got Jeanne Cummings from Politico with us. She covers politics and money for them.
Jeanne, good to talk to you again.
Jeanne Cummings: Thank you so much for having me.
Ryssdal: I need a definition of a word in political terms: the word “independent” when it comes to money raising.
Cummings: Well, that word takes on many meanings depending on who you’re talking to. I mean, in theory, in money and politics, if you have an independent group, they are supposed to develop their own ads and their own messages and have their own voice and their own reason for joining the political conversation, but of course, what we’ve seen over the course of time is these so-called independent groups are closely aligned, if not directly connected, to candidates, campaigns and parties and they become an echo chamber.
Ryssdal: Last time around in 2004, we had the 527s — Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was one of the better known ones. How’s that independence manifesting itself this time in the way money’s being spent?
Cummings: It is morphing a little bit this time. The 527s from the last cycle actually were subjected to some very large fines after the campaign season by the Federal Election Commission both on the Democratic side and the Republican side. And so that’s had some donors sort of step away and take a second look before they join up with the so-called issue 527s. And so instead what they are turning to are some more traditional party arms that don’t have to comply with the same federal limits that the candidates do.
Ryssdal: Do they go out, say the Democratic Governors or the Republican Governors Association, and say, “Listen: Give to us and it’ll help Barack Obama or John McCain and that’s why you ought to give?”
Cummings: Typically and historically, no, they have not done that. The Republican Governors Association this year has decided to include that message in their pitch for money and what it is is, “We are going to use our money to help improving the Republican brand thorough advertising that indirectly will help John McCain’s campaign.” There are campaign finance lawyers, including some inside the McCain campaign, who think that they’re really walking up to a legal line and they may be crossing it.
Ryssdal: How much of this search for the convenient loophole in campaign finance laws is being driven by the fact that Barack Obama is able to raise enough money outside the public financing system that John McCain then has to do whatever he can?
Cummings: If Republicans can’t figure out a way to get more money into the system then John McCain is going to be badly outspent — or at least we all expect that he will be — by Barack Obama because of Obama’s potential fundraising strength. McCain twice already has had to tell people who are in independent 527 groups who are trying to help him, he’s had to tell them, “Stand down. I don’t want you in this process. I tried to write a law to keep you out of this process.” And so it is a difficulty, a fine line for him to walk, because he has to turn away and upset people who are actually trying to help him.
Ryssdal: But these external sources, these independent sources, the governors and the various national committees, are they able to level the field somewhat?
Cummings: They could to some degree. It’s tricky because in a presidential campaign, control of the message is absolutely vital and they can’t do it if they’ve got to rely on others to deliver their messages for them.
Ryssdal: Jeanne Cummings from Politico. Jeanne, thanks a lot.
Cummings: You’re quite welcome.
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