Lisa Helfert

Lisa Helfert

Follow the money. That’s what Massie Ritsch ’98 does each day as communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks money in politics and its effect on elections and policymaking. A former Los Angeles Times reporter, Ritsch makes his group’s information available on He spoke in August with PAW about the presidential campaign. 

Why should people care about campaign finance?

We don’t expect anyone to wake up in the morning and think immediately about campaign finance or lobbying, but they might think about the cost of the pills they have to take or the amount they’re going to have to pay in gas to get to work. Then they might consider whether their elected representatives in Washington are looking out for them or looking out for the interests of those who financed their campaigns. If they’re concerned about climate change, the war, health care, or the economy, then they should consider what each candidate will do on those issues and whether they’ll stand up to donors who might have different views.  

How is this election different than in the past?

This is the first presidential election since taxpayers started subsidizing campaigns in the 1970s where one of the major-party nominees [Barack Obama] is not accepting public funds for the general election. At the same time, less than 10 percent of American taxpayers are paying into the system by checking that $3 box [to contribute to the public-financing system, which provides $84 million to fund each candidate’s campaign] on their tax returns. When you have one candidate saying $84 million is not enough to run for president in this day and age, and you have 90 percent of American taxpayers saying, “We don’t see a reason to pay into this system,” then you know it’s time to make some changes.

This will be the most expensive presidential election ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. More people than ever have made contributions, and in smaller amounts. And candidates have seen that there are ways to finance a campaign without entirely relying on deep-pocketed donors who might want something in return.  

What does John McCain’s decision to limit himself to the $84 million provided by the public-financing system mean to the election? 

The public-financing system, in a sense, creates a level playing field because both candidates are eligible for the same amount of money and can’t spend more than that. But the reality is that, beyond the field the two candidates play on, there is a larger field that both parties and outside-issue groups play on. They can raise unlimited amounts of money and are not tied down in the same way that the candidates themselves are. 

We project Obama will collect between $200 million and $300 million toward the November election, giving him an edge of about three-to-one over McCain. John McCain shouldn’t feel at a great disadvantage because his campaign can only spend $84 million. The Republican Party can spend as much as it’s able to raise, and there are some outside-issue campaigns, I’m sure, that will support McCain’s candidacy. On the Democratic side, Obama will have party support and support from outside-issue groups as well. 

We’ve read about bundlers — people who gather donations from many people to provide candidates with much more than the $2,300 maximum an individual can contribute directly to a campaign. Should the public know who’s raising the big bucks?

You can’t raise the millions and millions of dollars that candidates need to run for office without help from a network of people. It’s not unlike a capital campaign that Princeton might run. You have to tap a network of people to tap their networks to raise the big money. 

Both campaigns have voluntarily released names and some other information about bundlers, but we don’t know right now how much these people have raised for the candidates, so we don’t know what the potential payback might be. If history is any guide, they will be appointed ambassadors around the world, placed on regulatory boards, and might even be given Cabinet appointments. It’s best for voters to know beforehand who might be first in line.

You appeared on The Colbert Report last October to discuss campaign finance. What did you think of Colbert’s short, Doritos-sponsored run for president?

I thought he did a great service in running, albeit briefly, for president, because he put some light on some of the absurdities of the process and brought attention to the obstacles that candidates face in getting their message out. The way that he was running his campaign helped explain to a lot of people why our laws are the way they are. You can’t just let a nacho-flavored snack chip foot the bill for your campaign; you have to raise money from individuals the same way you have to collect individual votes to get elected. 

Interview conducted and condensed by Hilary Parker ’01