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Show Us the Money

When liberal activists at gave grassroots supporters a crack at writing the group's Super Bowl ad, it seemed a great way to generate free buzz. And save big bucks on the costs of producing TV spots.

The saving from MoveOn's homemade beat Bush spots would yield a fistful of dollars for the lifeblood of any campaign: TV ad time. And with estimates that $1 billion will be spent on political TV ads during the 2004 election season, finding ways to economize might be the difference between a victory party and a concession speech.

"With ad agencies working around the clock for Kerry and Bush, [MoveOn's homemade ads] would be another way to tap the pot," admits Amy Wolverton, media program director for the Campaign Legal Center. Despite the sense of connection generated among its faithful, the MoveOn contest did little to eliminate the need for old-fashioned fat cats to buy TV time. "The cost of producing an ad is minuscule compared to buying time," says Joel Rivlin, deputy director of University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

Money feeds election-year appetites. Before Howard Dean's presidential run collapsed, his Web-site Deaniacs were touted as the new wave of politics. Without a massive organization, they raised as much as $18 million from Internet donors. But don't mistake either for radical organizations. MoveOn and the Howard Dean campaign are simply updating an old formula: finding donors to finance TV attack ads. (Kerry just announced he has raised $10 million from Web donors in a single week.)

Which is why MoveOn's novel ad tactic shows that, even if activists try to eliminate the power of big money, the need for cash remains. After all, MoveOn spent $10 million on time to air winning spot "Child's Pay." (CBS famously refused to run it during the Super Bowl, resulting in free publicity.)

One of the newest wrinkles typifies how much politics stays the same, especially the insatiable demand for money. President Bush has already raised an estimated $180 million in hard-money donations. Kerry has about half that and is still shaking down the faithful.

Rather than look to the political parties to raise the bulk of their campaign cash through unlimited "soft" contributions, campaigns are now relying on big donations to flow into supposedly independent nonprofit groups—called "527s" after the section of the tax code governing their operation (see page 22). In reality, nearly all the politically active groups are intensely partisan.

Thus far, the Dems' take outnumbers the GOP by more than 10 to 1. Plus, the GOP claims the 527s illegally sidestep the 1992 campaign-finance-reform law's ban on soft money.

Not so, says Sarah Leonard, spokeswoman for two of the largest Democratic 527s, Media Fund and American's Coming Together. "We're working within the parameters of the law."

Is the money making a difference?" Says Rivlin, "It would be hard to say politics has changed."