Campaign spending earlier, higher than ever

WASHINGTON " Mitt Romney is buying $800,000 in television air time. Candidates are purchasing voter lists in the early states " $100,000 for the Iowa Democratic Party's list and $60,000 for the South Carolina version. And the entire presidential field is buying jet fuel by the planeload.

At the start of a campaign season that is already moving at lightning speed, presidential candidates are spending money at unprecedented rates. And these are only the initial investments in an election that strategists from both parties predict could cost each major party's nominee $500 million.

It's a number that's hard to fathom " a $1 billion dollar contest. It would not only be a record amount but nearly double what President Bush and Democrat John Kerry combined spent just three years ago.

And the big spending is yet to come.

Advertising accounts for the largest expense in a political campaign and campaigns are still building their organizations and raising money. But political veterans inside and outside say the level of political activity so far is extraordinary and is testing campaign budgets.

How much the campaigns have spent so far won't be evident until next month when they have to file public financial reports for the first three months of the year.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they have a fairly high burn rate," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyists and top strategist and veteran of the 2004 presidential campaign.

The challenge for the campaigns is to keep their fundraising well ahead of their spending.

At the Barack Obama presidential headquarters, there are no freebies. Even staffers must pay for the Illinois Democrat's souvenirs " $20.08 for T-shirts; $2.50 for placards.

Top staffers to Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, have had to triple up during hotel stays. Sen. John McCain has given campaign co-chairman Phil Gramm, a former U.S. senator known as a cost cutter, responsibility for overseeing his campaign's spending.

Obama, whose campaign is being run by the legendarily frugal David Plouffe, was the only Democratic candidate to decline a request from South Carolina Democrats that he donate to the party. And McCain delayed his announcement tour until April, in part to put off the costs of such an undertaking to the next quarter.

Why such an obsession with money now? The White House is a wide open contest for both parties " neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney are running. What's more, about 20 states are considering holding their primaries on Feb. 5 " the equivalent of a national primary that will require huge amounts of spending beginning in September of this year.

Where does all this money go? From decorations " Bush spent nearly $150,000 on balloons, flags, flowers and other filigree in the 2004 campaign " to advertising, the single biggest expense of any campaign.

In 2004, Bush and Kerry had total operating expenses of $572 million. Of that, $312 million " well more than half " went to media consultants to place ads on television and radio. The rest paid for staff salaries, travel, pollsters, fundraising consultants and direct mail. A study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity concluded that all the 2004 presidential candidates spent $457 million on consultants.


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