Third Parties Show us the Money

Third Parties Show us the Money
Jacqueline Salit

THERE’S A NEW money-in-politics story in town. It’s the one about the Reform Party having $13 million for its nominee in the 2000 presidential race.

Commentators have been reporting on this small but noticeable political pot o’ gold, spinning various scenarios about who might want it, who might get it, how it’s gotten and what its impact will be. But how did it get there in the first place?

Here’s a little-known fact. Independents have been breaking ground on accessing public financing for 20 years. But now, Reform’s $13 million has upped the ante.

In 1980, former Rep. John Anderson of Illinois ran for the presidency as an independent. Garnering close to 6 million votes, or 6.6 percent of the vote, in the primaries, he topped the 5 percent threshold required to receive public funds in the subsequent general election.

However, Anderson chose not to run again. Instead, he asked the Federal Election Commission to transfer his $15 million to Democrat Walter Mondale. This was a no-no according to the FEC. Individuals or parties who get 5 percent or more get the money. Anderson, who had no party, was forced to forfeit the cash.

In 1984, the same year Anderson gave up the independent ghost, Sonia Johnson, the presidential candidate of the Citizens Party, became the first independent ever to qualify for federal primary matching funds.

Primary funds, as opposed to general election money, are awarded based on current, not past demonstrations of popular support. Candidates who raise a minimum of $100,000 in 20 states in units of $250 or less can have their funds matched to pay for their primary campaigns. This is the money Gov. George W. Bush isn’t taking this year because it subjects the recipient to spending limits.

Johnson met the threshold, and received $193,000. Nobody really noticed because the amount was so small, but the precedent was monumental. The FEC voted to liken the petitioning process independent candidates undergo to the primaries of the major parties. In other words, collecting signatures on independent petitions was equivalent to collecting votes in a Democratic or Republican primary. Thus, Johnson was eligible. And so, presumably, the candidates soon to be competing for the Reform Party nomination would be, too.

The second independent to qualify for primary funds, Lenora B. Fulani, a third- party presidential contender who was the first African American and first woman in U.S. history to access the presidential ballot in all 50 states, qualified for close to $1 million in 1988 and $2 million in 1992.

Much has been made of Bush’s 75,000 primary election contributors, but in 1992, Fulani had more than 90,000 contributors, making her presidential primary campaign the largest grassroots funded one in history. Her average contribution was under $25, while Bush’s average contribution is just short of $500.

In 1992, Ross Perot spent $66 million of his own money, forfeiting the opportunity established by the Johnson precedent to qualify for primary matching funds, and polled close to 20 percent of the vote. This meant that Perot would be entitled to $30 million for the general election if he ran again.

In 1996, Perot did run again and accepted the $30 million. But he took an additional step — he ran as the candidate of a political party — the Reform Party. He passed the 5 percent threshold, with 8 percent of the vote, and Perot’s supporters filed with the FEC to create a national minor party. Consequently, the money is no longer pegged to Perot but to the Reform Party.

In 2000, the party’s presidential candidate will be eligible to receive close to $13 million for the general election campaign, and the party will get an additional $3 million for its convention. To give you a sense of the scale between major and minor, the Democrats and Republicans each get $12.3 million for their conventions (the televised broadcast is thrown in by the networks) and $66 million each for their campaigns.

But whatever the inequities, $13 million now awaits the Reform Party nominee. And a whole bunch of people are looking at it. These include Pat Buchanan, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, New Age independent John Hagelin and former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, considered by many to be the most serious contender. Perot hasn’t ruled himself out of the presidential race in 2000. If he became the Reform Party nominee, he might decide to fund his campaign personally and forgo the $13 million.

But if you’re Buchanan or Weicker, how do you get the money? You get it by winning the Reform Party nomination. How do you get that? Well, you don’t get it at the Reform Party convention, as has been reported by such venerable media as the New York Times. The Reform Party doesn’t give its nomination during the convention.

It gives it via a direct popular vote conducted by mail ballot, telephone and computer. All Reform Party members and any eligible voter who signs a Reform petition or requests inclusion are eligible to vote. In 1996, in the Ross Perot-Dick Lamm contest, just under 50,000 Reformers cast ballots. In other words, you have to create a base of support in the Reform Party, on a wide-open playing field, in order to win. That means appealing to the party’s raison d’etre — sweeping political reform.

What’s the upshot? Well, $13 million is not $60 million. It won’t get you into the White House. But most Reform Party activists do not believe that 2000 offers them the opportunity to win the presidency. Rather, it’s an opportunity to secure the 5 percent sans Perot, perhaps to go as high as 10 or 15 percent, and use the presence of a well-known figure, like a Weicker or a Buchanan, to expand the base and infrastructure of the party and turn it into an independent populist electoral bloc.

With more than a third of Americans now identifying themselves as independents and a good amount of money available for a “party building” presidential campaign, 2000 may not just show us the money. It may show us the movement, too.

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