The Presidential Horse Race

Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity counts the dollars pouring into the campaign. Here's a bilious breakdown.



If U.S. presidential elections have become the world’s most expensive horse races, informed voters need to know who breeds, stables, and owns the horseflesh. Comprehensive knowledge of candidates’ bloodlines was once limited to an elite group of political junkies and bookies. That changed in 1996, when Washington’s Center for Public Integrity trotted out its first edition of The Buying of the President — the one-stop shopping guide to who bought and paid for our would-be presidents.

The new edition serves up money profiles of eight Republicans, two Democrats, and one Patrick Buchanan. Each profile includes a list of the candidate’s Top Ten, lifelong “Career Patrons.” These digests of who funds the candidates reveal more than all the stump speeches, debates, and political ads of this election season.

“Money is not the only ingredient, but it is an essential ingredient to a successful presidential campaign,” says Center for Public Integrity Director Charles Lewis. “Without exception, in every presidential race since 1976 … the candidate who raised the most money the year before the election has received the nomination of his party.”

Imagine that you are a political bookie laying odds on the eleven racehorses handicapped in The Buying of the President 2000. Experience has taught you that — no matter how much they talk about “outsiders” and “reform” — the winner will almost certainly be a horse that has vast experience in two key areas: (1) exercising political influence that relates to special interests; and (2) raising gobs of corporate money.

With this in mind, you run your finger down the chart below, which lists the top career patrons of these race horses and the amount of money they had raised as of January 1, 2000. The field quickly narrows to the four political warhorses that have a shot at crossing the finish line.

Presidential Finances

Horse Presidential $$ Raised byJanuary 1, 2000 Top Career Patron $$ from Career Patron First Federal Fundraising George Bush $70,033,835 Enron Corp. $550,000 1977 Steve Forbes $34,625,213 Forbes publishing fortune $34,150,999 1996 Al Gore, Jr. $31,881,779 Ernst & Young accounting $125,200 1977 Bill Bradley $27,712,505 Citigroup financial services $454,065 1977 John McCain $15,756,242 U.S. West Communications $107,520 1981 Gary Bauer $8,788,242 Slifko family (Ohio) $33,000 1995 Pat Buchanan $6,496,556 Vopnford family (Nebraska) $19,000 1991 Dan Quayle $5,739,832 Wilshire Financial Services $257,000 1977 Elizabeth Dole $5,279,740 Verner Liipfert (lobby firm) $38,750 1999 Orrin Hatch $2,301,133 American Family Life Ins. $38,750 1979 Alan Keyes $2,301,133 National Rifle Association $22,209 1987 Totals $210,599,263   $25,850,323  

A good bookie could weed out half the field on the first cut simply by eliminating any horse that failed to raise, say, $10 million by New Year’s Day. Notice that many of the six eliminated horses share other traits, too. All except Dan Quayle received less than $100,000 from their top career patron. While all five favored horses are kept in big corporate stables, the top patrons of long shots Bauer, Keyes, and Buchanan reflect narrow interests that are unlikely to go the distance. Keyes’ top gun, the National Rifle Association, is powerful, but a long shot among urban voters. Bauer’s top patrons, the Slifko family of Barberton, Ohio, are right-to-life poster people. The Vopnford family of Blair, Nebraska, is an odd lead patron for a “Reform Party” candidate. In 1995, Nebraska’s attorney general got a bundle of Vopnford donations, including $1,000 from politically precocious Leif Vopnford, age twelve. The Vopnford family had good reason to cozy up to the attorney general. After 70,000 campers paid the Vopnfords $6,000 apiece for access to fifty-eight campgrounds in a timeshare deal, the Vopnfords closed two-thirds of their camps and let others go to seed. They were sued for consumer fraud by several state attorneys general — but not in Nebraska.

What the Vopnfords can’t buy is an outside chance for their candidate in a presidential campaign. The odds in this money-driven race eliminate the only third-party candidate (Buchanan), the sole minority (Keyes), and the lone woman (Dole), which is no surprise. There are few two-dollar bettors in presidential campaigns. “Ninety-six percent of Americans don’t give a dime to any politician,” Lewis says. “Only one-tenth of one percent of the population makes the maximum $1,000 contribution, so we’re talking about a narrow sliver of society sponsoring our electoral process.” In the last presidential election year, white men earning more than $100,000 a year supplied two out of three contributions larger than $200.

Among the five horses that survived the initial cut, odds were against Steve Forbes for two reasons. First, his federal fundraising operation is just four years old. The other four survivors are pros who geared up their fundraising machines two decades ago (three of them started in 1977). The second strike against Forbes (like H. Ross Perot before him) is that he is a political outsider who is almost too wealthy. How can you be too wealthy in a money-driven race? Forbes’ top patron — his own family fortune — belies an exceedingly narrow fundraising base. Note that the leading career patrons of Bush and Bradley, for example, are Enron and Citigroup. Bush built a reputation for servicing not just Enron but the entire energy industry; Bradley has played this role for the financial industry.

Forbes lacks this critical ingredient: what might be called the real retail politics. His top patron is Forbes, Inc. and that’s where it ends. The publishing industry as a whole does not subscribe to Steve Forbes. Forbes has never held a position of power where he could build trust with an industry by taking its money and then delivering whatever its lobbyists wanted. While the odds are on a thoroughbred winning the race, this one seems to be far too inbred.

Having winnowed an eleven-horse race down to four thoroughbreds with winning financial pedigrees, what more does The Buying of the President say about them? Lewis looks not only at big contributors, but the relationship between the giver and the receiver — and what that relationship implies.

George W. Bush

Observer readers are familiar with much of the ground Lewis covers in The Buying of the President, including accounts of how he:

made $15 million off the Texas Rangers deal with the help of $135 million in corporate welfare from Arlington taxpayers;took $4.5 million from the business interests clamoring for “tort reform” and rewarded them with laws that make it harder to sue irresponsible businesses; andinvited oil industry executives to develop a do-nothing public relations response to the “grandfathered” air pollution problem in Texas.

The Observer has not yet covered the University of Texas Investment Management Company (UTIMCO) scandal, in which huge sums of money flow back and forth between Bush and his top donors. Tom Hicks (of the Dallas corporate takeover firm Hicks Muse Tate & Furst) made Bush a millionaire fifteen times over by buying the Texas Rangers. Hicks and his brother Steven contributed $146,000 to Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns; Steven is a Bush fundraising “Pioneer,” who has raised at least $100,000 for Bush’s presidential race. Tom Hicks long urged U.T. to move part of its $13 billion endowment into riskier investments. In 1990, for example, he tried to get it to invest in his takeover of Healthco, a dental supply company that went bankrupt three years later. In 1995, the Texas Senate confirmed Tom Hicks as a U.T. regent, just as Bush was moving into the Governor’s Mansion. Hicks hired lobbyists to push a bill — signed into law by Bush — that created UTIMCO. With Hicks as its first chair, UTIMCO began to dole out lucrative contracts to private investment firms to manage portions of the endowment. Many of these firms had ties to Hicks and Bush:

The Carlyle Group. The elder George Bush reportedly has an equity stake in this firm, which is run by leading members of his presidential administration. Maverick Capital Fund. Its investors include Bush Pioneer Charles Wyly and his brother Sam, who gave $210,273 to Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns. Bass Brothers Enterprises. Bass family interests funneled $215,000 to Bush and financed a Bahraini drilling contract won by a small oil exploration company where Bush served as a director. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. This corporate buyout firm would soon join Hicks, Muse in a $1.5 billion takeover of Regal Cinemas. Evercore Partners. Evercore joined Hicks, Muse in a $900 million buyout of television stations soon after its UTIMCO deal.