Presidential primary candidates were flush with money this year, and your neighbors helped pad those pockets.
Sometimes “grass roots” means cutting a check for thousands of dollars and cheering in front of the television. With presidential primary candidates rallying unprecedented amounts of money for the 2008 election, many local residents have been doling out the maximum amount to the candidate of their choice. But with campaign war chests surpassing the $100 million mark, do local contributions of a couple of thousand dollars really have an impact with presidential candidates? Campaign finance laws dictate that individuals can contribute up to $2,300 during the primary cycle, but they can also donate $2,300 to the same candidate for the general election. Dick Simpson, professor and department head of the University of Illinois at Chicago Political Science Department, said the impact occurs when like-minded individuals contribute at once. When a massive corporation has all its top executives forking over the maximum amount, those $2,300 checks quickly snowball into hefty sums. “In some cases, citizens, either individuals or a group of people working in the same business, will join together and give money to a presidential campaign — usually because they support the candidate, but they might be attempting to gain access, too,” Simpson said. Access, not influence, is key, Simpson said. It isn’t likely a presidential candidate will change position on an issue, even for monumental contributions. But access might be enough. “If Candidate A is getting money from labor unions and Candidate B is getting money from wealthy business members, they will tend to try to be helpful in policies regarding where they got their support,” Simpson said. Daniel Shea, co-author of “Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management,” said politicians fall into one of two categories — lead or follow. They either let money lead their decisions, or they make decisions after which money follows. Most presidential possibilities fall in the “follow” category, said Shea, a professor of political science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “They’ve already established positions. They’ve already made the vote,” he said. “Then, the money comes in because they’ve made those decisions. It doesn’t change those positions. It is a reward for positions they already have.” Even so, he also says money means access, if not influence. Once elected, a politician might not alter his or her policies, but a known contributor might get one-on-one time that a noncontributor would not. “Elected officials are often really busy,” Shea said. “There’s a stack of phone calls to return and only enough time for a couple. Is the politician more likely to return a phone call to those who have given money? Yes, and I think most honest politicians will admit that.” At the base of every successful campaign for office is a foundation of average citizens, mom-and-pop business owners and overzealous college kids with a bunch of pins and bumper stickers — right? Not really. It has become increasingly obvious that having a bulging bank account trumps the grass-roots approach, Shea said. “They want both, but they’d rather take the money,” Shea said. “You can control the outcome more when you have the money. Volunteers are wonderful, but depending on volunteers is risky. If you have money, you can buy volunteers.” With a race this expensive — groups like OpenSecrets.org are predicting the 2008 presidential race to draw a record $1 billion in total contributions — candidates are even more dependent on donors willing to whip out the checkbook. In states like Illinois, it’s pretty clear cut which political party will ultimately claim victory. Consequently, some people give so their candidate can fight the good fight elsewhere. “The money raised in Illinois is not going to be spent (here) necessarily,” Simpson said. “Like with Obama, the money he earns here is certainly is not going to be spent here.” Still, money doesn’t necessarily mean votes, Simpson said -- an unfunded candidate might still snag the votes Tuesday. Chicago Suburban