WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With eight months to go before the U.S. presidential election, the candidates have raised almost $1 billion to fund their campaigns -- more than the size of the economies of several African countries.
The unusually long race for the White House -- which began in earnest more than a year ago -- has been a cash bonanza, especially for Democrats who are breaking all records.
Republicans lag behind but still rake in tens of millions and have time to make up ground in the money game between now and the November 4 national election.
Between January 2007 and February, the candidates raised a record $814 million. By the end of this month, analysts expect the total taken in and spent by the candidates and interest groups will reach $1 billion.
“America’s really taking a big step forward in terms of spending on their elections,” said Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a research organization affiliated with George Washington University.
Weissman said the three main presidential candidates -- Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican John McCain -- are pulling in a combined total of at least $100 million a month. Figures show the candidates are spending up to 93 percent of what they have raised.
To put the numbers into perspective, seven African countries or islands each have a gross domestic product of less than $1 billion, according to International Monetary Fund data. They include Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Comoros, the Seychelles, Liberia and Djibouti.
While they were careful not to criticize the American political process, people in some aid organizations mentioned other possible uses for so much money.
An official with CARE, one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations fighting global poverty, said even a fraction of $1 billion could help tens of millions of people.
“An additional $150 million could ensure that 10 million girls could receive a quality education. An additional $150 million could help make pregnancy and safe delivery available for 30 million women in 10 countries,” said Deborah Neuman, senior vice president for resource development at CARE.
Neuman would not criticize the amount of money being spent on the campaign, saying it was important for Americans to become participants in the political process.
But she said, “Dollars need to be looked at and made room for in peoples’ philanthropic giving for causes like ours and fighting poverty.”
Experts said the amounts being spent in this presidential election are much higher than in most other countries, though still only a fraction of what Americans spend advertising some basic products or eating out in restaurants.
A large portion of the money in the United States is spent paying for television and radio time while some other countries provide broadcast time to candidates, Weissman said.
More money is needed also because campaigns in the United States are much longer compared to many other nations. Under the American electoral system each state holds a nominating contest followed by the November general election.
Usually the battle ends early after only a few states are finished with their nominating contests. But with no incumbent this election has been different and both parties have waged a long battle to pick nominees for the upcoming election.
“We started two years out. Even by American standards that’s a long election,” said Gary Klaman, of watchdog group
Groups like U.S. PIRG and the Center for Responsive Politics say while the use of the Internet has allowed many more people to take part by donating small amounts of money, the bulk of the fund-raising is still from large donors.
“Yes it’s a lot of money. But really -- it’s less about the overall amount of money than where that money is coming from and who is supplying it,” said Klaman.
Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics said even with the Internet contributions, only about 4 percent of Americans make a contribution to a federal politician.
“The bulk of the money is coming from a tiny group of largely wealthy Americans who are having a great impact disproportionate to their numbers on something that should be important to everybody,” he said.
“That is what should frighten Americans -- when these guys get elected are they looking primarily out for the good of the people or are there debts that they need to pay back,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Richard Cowan and David Wiessler)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:blogs.reuters.com/trail08/