Maybe the presidential candidates are making headlines with their half-truths and whole lies and dodging sniper fire and striving to become the first black/female/oldest president, but the real hallmark of this campaign is none of the above.

It's money.

"The amount of money being spent is obscene," says Dan Jones, the renowned Utah-based pollster who has monitored every presidential campaign since 1962.

For instance, Obama has raised a total of $237 million since he began his campaign, smashing the previous record of $185.6 million raised by President Bush in 2004. And we've still got eight months to go.

How much money is that? Let's put it this way: You could buy a pretty good outfielder with that moola.

According to Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, if a candidate wants to raise $100 million in a year, he or she must raise $250,000 every day — or, in other words, collect five of the legal maximum $2,300 individual contributions every single hour of every single day, including weekends, for one year.

Keeping that in mind, in 2007 Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised a combined total of $208 million from individual contributors.

The three Republican candidates — John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee — raised $99 million last year, bringing the total of the five candidates to $307 million raised from individual donors (not counting loans and transfers).

In a way, the man they seek to replace in the White House has only himself to blame. President Bush started it all. From 1976 to 2000, every major party nominee accepted public funding, which meant candidates were legally limited as to how much money they could raise and spend on their own.

In 2000, Bush decided not to accept public financing for the primary election, figuring he could raise much more than the almost $50 million the federal government was offering. He was right and then some. He raised more than $110 million — more than double the public funding that Democratic rival Al Gore had at his disposal.

Thus the floodgates were opened.

In 2004, none of the major presidential candidates accepted public financing for the primary election. John Kerry and Bush each raised some $260 million.

The stakes have been raised again for the 2008 campaign. Obama raised $55 million in February alone. That same month, Clinton and McCain raised $35 million and $11 million, respectively.

These seem like ridiculous amounts of money to spend just to put a man in the White House, but Jowers doesn't look at it that way. Because federal law limits donations to individuals (as opposed to special interest groups and corporations), the money now comes from ordinary citizens and in relatively small amounts.

"These amounts of money give you all kinds of emotions," Jowers says. "But I'm excited. Small donors are good. This is democracy at work, and I am excited that so many people feel empowered enough to contribute to the candidate of their choice."

For example, in February, 90 percent of the money Obama raised consisted of online donations of $100 or less, and more than 50 percent of those donations were $25 or less. Most of the money is coming from first-time contributors. Obama is so flush in individual donations that some believe he will be the first candidate from a major party not to accept public funding for the general election.

We're in the midst of a grass-roots movement, if Jowers is any judge of matters, and he is. He is a partner in the Caplin and Drysdale law firm in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in political law. He has provided legal and political advice to state and national political parties and numerous gubernatorial, congressional and presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney. He also co-founded the Campaign Legal Center, which defended the famous McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill against court challenges.

The bill attempted to curtail the donations of corporations, unions and special interest groups, some of whom were throwing millions of dollars to candidates in BOTH parties — surely an indication that they were not donating on principle but trying instead to win political favor.

"I am mostly thrilled with the money that is going into federal campaigns," Jowers says. "Making a political contribution is like putting money in the office March Madness pool — you become invested." Jowers notes that having so many people participating in this presidential race helps reduce the undue influence of big-money special interest groups. "Special interest will always fill the vacuum in our democracy when citizens become apathetic," he says.

Problems remain in the system — there are still loopholes that allow power brokers to get money and influence to candidates — but Jowers believes it's improving, and that it's returning power to the people.

"It's exciting to see so many people energized," he says.


Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. Please e-mail [email protected].