'So, can I count on your support?'

It's the most powerful job in the world. And the most expensive to apply for. The US presidential elections may be more than a year away, but candidates are already declaring, and look set to break all records with their campaign spending. Andrew Buncombe investigates
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The Independent US

In a small and cramped eighth-floor office no more than a stone's throw from the White House, John Hlinko is avidly tearing open an envelope that bears a postmark from Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Inside is a cheque for $30 (£20) made out from a woman called Lynn. "This is the sort of thing we've been getting all the time," says Hlinko, as he puts the cheque away into a drawer. "It says here that she's an administrative assistant."

Hlinko knows the importance of such cheques - big or small. As co-founder of a group trying to persuade retired General Wesley Clark to run for president, he knows the value of every cent they receive. With $100,000 (£63,000) in donations from people such as Lynn from Bartlesville, Hlinko's group, Draft Wesley Clark, has managed to raise support for the former Nato Supreme Commander among Democratic voters from nothing a few weeks ago to somewhere around five per cent. The group members feel quite pleased with themselves.

But the reality is that if Clark is to get serious about getting the top job, he is going to have to get serious about getting his hands on some serious money. Running for the presidency of the US is a hugely expensive - some might say hugely wasteful - undertaking that threatens the finances of everyone involved. And, of course, it is only really worth it if you manage to win the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: it can literally be a matter of make or break.

"Access to money is very important, especially in the primary phase of the election," says Tony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College, Maine, and a veteran observer of US elections. "It's still not more important than the candidate, neither is it more important than the general state of the nation. But other than that, money is the most important thing. Even if you have a message, you need money to get that message out."

Even at this stage, more than 14 months away from polling day, it is already clear that the 2004 US presidential election will beat all records when it comes to the amount of money spent by the candidates on their campaigns. To an extent this is not unusual: every presidential election in recent history has been more expensive than the previous one.

But what is set to make the 2004 election stand out is the scale of the increase from other recent contests. Just consider this: 24 years ago, Ronald Reagan raised and spent $21m (£13m) in the primary stages of the 1980 election. This time around fellow Republican George Bush, whose father served two terms as Reagan's vice-president before winning the most senior office himself, is poised to raise and spend more than $200m (£126m). Some say the figure might be even higher.

Just where does all this money go? How can George Bush possibly spend $200m - the same amount that he has pledged to spend fighting Aids in South Africa next year - campaigning, especially when it is all but certain that as the incumbent he will not face an opponent from his own party? How can all that money - which Bush will be allowed to raise because he has opted to stay out of the publicly funded "match-funding" arrangement that would have limited him to just $45m (£28m) during the primary - just disappear?

"The biggest cost - up to 60 per cent of your total budget - goes on television advertising," explains Rick Davis, campaign manager for Republican Senator John McCain when he challenged Bush during the 2000 presidential primaries. "You can pay up to $10,000 (£6,000) for a 30-second commercial. How long will it run? It's based on a system of achieving 1,000 Gross Rating Points (GRPs) which means a certain percentage of people have seen the advertisement a certain number of times."

The cost of advertising changes from market to market. In a medium-sized "market", such as Boston, it may cost $100,000 to achieve 1,000 GRP. "In New York it might be three times that," says Davis.

As the sophistication of television advertising has increased, so has the cost of that advertising. Thirty years ago, a candidate could simply air an advert on one of the three main network channels during a break in the evening news and be pretty sure that most people would see it. "Now, we have become more focused and it is important to target the advertisements in those states where you have a chance of winning," says Peter Fenn, director of the Washington-based political consultants Fenn and King Communications who worked on former vice-president Al Gore's presidential run in 2000.

"There is no point in the Democrats spending money in Idaho because the state is so Republican. You have to put money into states where you have a chance," says Fenn.

But the introduction of cable television and of 24-hour news channels has meant there are so many more markets in which a candidate needs to buy advertising. Experts say there are now more than 100 channels on which a serious candidate will need to have a presence. An advert rarely runs for more than a week. The advert itself is not cheap. "It can be between $4,000-$5,000 (£2,500-£3,000) for a simple studio advert," says Fenn, "But it could be $50,000 (£31,500) if it is something outside."

Another major expense for any aspirant will be the cost of his or her campaign team. It is established Washington lore that no one joins a presidential campaign to make money - junior aides can get paid just $18,000 (£11,000) a year - but when you have a minimum of 50 staff costs can add up.

Along with this goes the cost of setting up offices in the 50 states. If you are a candidate with one of the two main parties some of this can be done using volunteers and the local staff of the party organizations. But there are still advance parties to be dispatched, people to be organized. And then all these staff need air tickets to wherever it is you want them to be and then somewhere to stay once they get there.

"We tried to use volunteers as much as possible," says Theresa Amato, who was the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's campaign manager during the 2000 race and whose total budget was just $8m (£5m). "And we were frugal. Our advance party was made up of just two people who hop-scotched from one place to the next."

As appears standard practice for less wealthy candidates, Nader's staff stayed in cheap motels or else in the homes of supporters. Only economy-class air tickets were used. The same tactics are being used this time around by the team of the Democratic candidate Congressman Dennis Kucinich, whose staff spend much of their time looking at the website of "Extended Stay America" to find housing deals for the candidate and his staff in Iowa, which by tradition has one of the earliest primaries.

In past years other candidates have had to go to even greater lengths to save money. When the then California governor Jerry Brown - fondly known as "Governor Moonbeam", campaign number 1800 HE'S NUTS - was challenging Bill Clinton for the 1992 Democratic nomination, he would meet supporters at rallies and then ask to stay in their homes. He estimated that he stayed in more than 200 different supporter's homes in this way.

Fundraising itself is another major cost. Most political consultants agree that for every dollar raised by a candidate, 15 to 20 cents of it is spent raising that money by either phone calls or mail.

Then there is the cost of getting the message across by means other than television advertising, most importantly by directly targeted mail or telephone calls. Wayne Johnson, of Johnson and Clark Associates, who ran the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign's mail-shots on the West Coast, says: "It's going to cost you around 25 cents for every piece of mail you send out. It is all very targeted. Over the years you try to build up as much information about voters as you can to determine who you should be trying to reach."

It is a similar scenario with telephone calls, reckoned to cost a candidate around 15 cents a call. Once again, campaigners will look to the lists of voters that have been developed over time. There is little point in a Republican candidate having his staff call a life-long registered Democrat voter.

There are other costs that cannot be avoided. Commissioning an opinion poll of around 1,000 people can cost anywhere between $40,000-$60,000 (£25,000-£38,000). "The cost of polling will only be a small part of a candidate's budget but it is essential because it tells you how to spend the rest of the money," says Mark Mellman, CEO of the Mellman Group, and considered one the country's leading pollsters. "What you are really looking for is direction for your strategy." Those cheques are being used up fast.

Then there is the cost of the consultant who will run the campaign. While many consultants opt to work for a presidential campaign for less then their normal rate because of the profile it gives them, a campaign manger will be looking for a salary of at least $120,000 (£76,000). "I took a pay cut. I cut my pay to $90,000 (£57,000)," says Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in the 2000 race.

Finally, there is the endless list of accessories, essential to any candidate. They may seem small fry - bumper stickers, for instance - but in bulk to stay visible throughout the campaign season, costs are exhorbitant. Meals, wardrobe, hire cars, mobile phones, stationery, stickers, balloons with the candidate's name on, transporting the media at large events, transporting the candidate by taxi to the studio of the local television station in Iowa to debate an arcane topic of vital interest to the people of that corn-, soya- and pork-growing state.

And the list never runs out, unlike the money.

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE - HOW THE COSTS ADD UP

TELEVISION ADVERTISING

Up to $2,000 (£1,300) per 30-second ad in a mid-market slot, such as ABC's Today programme. During the middle of the night it might be as little as $50-$100 (but then, who's watching?). The most expensive TV advertising slot so far in election history: during the primetime drama show Ed at 8pm in the 2000 governor's race in New York, George Pataki paid $10,000 (£6,000) for 30 seconds.

OFFICE AND STAFF COSTS

"Pay staff as little as possible," says Rick Davis, campaign manager for Senator John McCain in 2000. "Keep staff as small as possible." A junior staff member may get as little as $18,000, rising to $22,000; important to keep the flag flying all across the country, a state director might get $50,000, and a field director $40,000.

CONSULTANTS

The campaign manager keeps the show on the road, and as such can command up to $120,000. Other consultants may take a percentage fee. Firms contracted to send mail etc for candidates may charge one or two cents per item.

PRODUCTION OF A TV COMMERCIAL

Remember the film Wag the Dog? A fortune was spent on an emotive, but fraudulent, commercial for the presidential candidate. In the real world, a cheap 30-second studio advert will set the campaign back $4,000-$5,000 but that's a seriously basic commercial. For something more glitzy, on location, costs rise to $50,000 and beyond.

FUNDRAISING

Calls to deep-pocketed supporters of the candidate, imploring them to contribute, cost 15 per cent of each dollar raised. Meanwhile, mail to those same people costs 20-30 per cent of each dollar raised.

DIRECT ADVERTISING

Mail to potential voters costs 25 cents per letter. These are targeted very carefully by examination of voter lists and records.

"Hello, I'm calling from the office of..." Tiresome for the recipient, those ra-ra telephone calls cost 15 cents each. The costs soon mount up, with hundreds of thousands of calls made.

CAMPAIGN COSTS

The rules for a thrifty candidate (forget Bush, he's got Air Force One at his disposal): double-up for hotel rooms, fly in commercial planes rather than private. John McCain would only fly economy class himself. This visibility issue can get very expensive in the latter stages of the campaign when making trips to four or five cities a day. It is even more costly for those candidates who are attracting a large media following because they have to pay for them as well. Factor in $75-$100 per night for a motel, more for a hotel. And much more in key cities such as New York or Los Angeles.

CLOTHES

No self-respecting candidate can hope to make it in Washington without stopping off at the somewhat conservative Brooks Brothers store. A luxury Italian wool suit costs $798, a matching (not clashing) Mogador checkerboard tie, $69.50, thank you very much. The essential half-a-dozen dress shirts at $59.50, will be $300. A Turnbull & Asser shirt, as preferred by the likes of the presidential candidate John Kerry, has a starting price of $210.

PRIVATE POLLS

Are you getting any votes for all this outlay? One way to find out is to spend another $40,000-$60,000 for a poll interviewing 1,000 people.

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