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The money game
Will FEC limits on state spending slam John Edwards?

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2002 -- The Presidential candidates disclosed their third-quarter financials this week, and there was much talk about the amazing Dean money train. (In late August, I wrote that Dean had until the start of October to prove himself a serious candidate to influential party insiders. $14.8 million raised in the quarter and poll leads in Iowa and New Hampshire say yes.)

Few people examine the state-by-state expenditure allocation tables, but there is news there -- and bad news in particular for Senator John Edwards.

Edwards slipped in fundraising but still entered October with $4.8 million cash, even after unleashing a series of television ads in key states. That’s not in Dean’s $12.4 million cash-on-hand territory, but it’s in the ballpark with Senator John Kerry ($7.8 million) Congressman Richard Gephardt ($5.9 million), Senator Joe Lieberman ($4.1 million) and General Wesley Clark ($3.4 million).

The problem he now faces, however, is the little-noticed state spending limits imposed on candidates who accept federal matching funds.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) places campaign spending limits on individual states as well as on the primary process as a whole. Key states with early contests are given no special exemption to the formula, which is based on voting-age population and cost-of-living adjustments. As a result, those limits can be ... limiting. In the last cycle, for instance, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were allowed to spend no more than $1,162,032 in Iowa; Gore spent $1,094,256.65, Bradley spent $1,011,339.47. Both came close to the $675,000 New Hampshire limit that year as well.

But at this early point four years ago, Gore had spent about a quarter-million in Iowa, and Bradley had spent less than $50,000 -- most of the spending came closer to the actual caucus, when voters are paying more attention and advertising has a greater effect.

The FEC has not released this year’s limits yet (they will depend on inflation calculations) but the numbers should be around $1.3 million for Iowa and $750,000 for New Hampshire.

Aside from Edwards, the top spenders still have a million dollars left to go in Iowa and half a million in New Hampshire. Kerry and Gephardt have each spent around $350,000 in Iowa, and Dean has used about $240,000. Kerry has spent $240,000 in the Granite State, Dean $125,000. But the Edwards campaign has spent far more: $715,920 in Iowa, and $535,872 in New Hampshire through the end of September.

That means that from now until those states vote in late January, Edwards can spend less than half of what his opponents can in those states, assuming he accepts matching funds (and he’s in no position to do otherwise).

Edwards’ key primary comes later, in South Carolina, but he needs decent showings before that to appear viable. There are ways to get around the state limits to some extent -- airing ads aimed at New Hampshire voters on Boston television stations, which air in the Granite State, for instance. And of course Edwards could simply overspend and accept a fine later. But if outspending his opponents three-to-one has gotten him to around five percent in the polls in both states, what hope can he have while they’re outspending him by a similar rate down the closing stretch?

Issue Date: October 17, 2003
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