The Presidential Campaign: The Race for Money

This inquiry activity invites students to explore the central role of money in the 2008 election.

"With the United States military fighting a protracted war in Iraq and a wide-open presidential campaign already making headlines daily, Americans of all ages are interested in current affairs and are consuming news like never before, right?" asks the New York Times (7/16/07). "Not so, especially not teenagers and young adults, according to a report released last week by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In fact, most teenagers and adults 30 and younger are not following the news closely at all."

How might a teacher engage students in a study of this "wide-open presidential campaign"?

"It's important to mentally engage students in what you're teaching," Eric Mazur, a Harvard professor of applied physics, told the New York Times (7/17/07). "We're way too focused on facts and rote memorization and not on learning the process of doing science..I want to change this. The students who score high do so because they've learned how to regurgitate information on tests. On the whole, they haven't understood the basic concepts behind the facts, which means they can't apply them to the laboratory. Or in life."

Mazur was talking about teaching physics at a university level. But what he said is also applicable to teaching about politics and government at the high school level.

What are the "basic concepts" behind the 2008 election? Above all, the election is fueled by money. How does this fact affect the everyday life of Clinton, Giuliani, Obama, Romney, who solicit money as they run? And how does the money chase affect the lives of the rest of us?

"You might think I spend most of my time kissing babies or shaking hands or having serious policy debates in which my sparkling wit and superior knowledge of the issues combine to sweep audiences off their feet," wrote Al Franken, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota, in The Huffington Post (, 6/4/07).

"But no. I spend most of my time doing this," he writes, referring to a photo of two men at a paper-strewn desk. One is on the phone, the other is working a computer. "That's me during 'call time,' which is basically what candidates for public office do all day. The guy on the right is Kris, my call time manager. It's his job to sit with me for hours at a time and make sure I'm 'making the ask' on every call. For instance, he's currently pacing behind me reminding me to make another 'ask' in here. Here it is, Kris: please click here and give me money. Okay?"

Presidential candidates may do less work on the phone than Senate challengers like Al Franken, but they, too, must involve themselves heavily in fundraising.

Most Americans know that it requires money to run for any public office and a ton of money to run for president of the United States. TV news programs, the web, and newspapers and magazines report regularly on how Candidate A is doing in the money race, on how his or her numbers compare with Candidate B's, on whether fundraising efforts are raking in lots of cash to fuel a candidacy (Obama and Clinton), or perhaps are drying up along with a candidacy (McCain?).

Typically, the media present the campaign, including the pursuit of money, as a horse race. Just as they offer facts on who's ahead in the polls, they report on who's ahead in the collection of campaign cash, and perhaps also on some of its sources. But rarely do they investigate those sources, ask questions, offer answers and provide the evidence for them—in short, report on the "basic concepts behind facts" and how they might affect lives.

Perhaps this is a task students can undertake.


Student inquiry:

Campaign cash and its sources

Opening question: How much money do you think a presidential candidate needs to raise for his or her campaign? Why?

Note responses on the chalkboard.

Then inform students that in the first half of 2007 Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised about $63 and $59 million, respectively, for their primary campaigns. The combined total for all presidential candidates through June 2007 is $265 million.

These figures represent just the beginning of an effort that will run through most of 2008. In 2004, presidential nominees raised a total of $880 million, but every indication is that this figure will soon be dwarfed. (Center for Responsive Politics,

Framing an inquiry with questions

1. What do students know about presidential campaign fundraising?

2. What are their sources of information?

3. How accurate is what students report about what they say they know?

4. What do they think they know but are unsure about?

5. What would they like to know?

6. How might they put each uncertainty into question form?

Note: See "Thinking is Questioning" and "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for specific suggestions on asking, analyzing, and rewording questions. See also "Presidential Election 2004: The Impact of Campaign Spending." It includes background historical information on campaign finance and its regulation. Missing from it is the relatively recent development of "527" organizations and a Supreme Court decision that loosens regulation of them. (527 refers to a section of the US tax code. A 527 is a tax-exempt organization created primarily to influence elections that is typically not subject to the same restrictions as PACs.)

Questions for students

1. What sources do presidential candidates tap for contributions?

2. Which of them contribute the most?

3. Why do these sources contribute?

4. What is the evidence to support those conclusions?

5. How does the presidential finance system affect ordinary citizens?

6. Why have presidential candidates been abandoning the public finance program?

7. Why do candidates need money?

8. How much do they need?

9. What must they do to get it?

10. How do they spend it?

11. What rules for raising money must candidates follow?

Two quotes for student consideration

"Corporations think they are getting their money's worth or they wouldn't be writing the checks."
—Warren Buffet, a businessperson and the second wealthiest man in America, on corporate campaign contributions (Omaha World Herald, 1/31/98)

"If we don't ante up and play the game, we'll get left in the dust. It's money that could be better spent on our people, but we need a seat at the table."
—Ivan Makil, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribe, on the tribe's plans to give $500,000 to federal candidates in 2002, a five-fold increase over the amount it gave two years earlier. (Wall Street Journal, 4/17/02)

For discussion

1. How much do corporations contribute to political campaigns? If you don't have any idea, how might you find out?

2. In what ways might corporations get "their money's worth" through campaign contributions? What makes you think so? How might you verify your ideas?

3. What do you think Ivan Makil means by "ante up," "the game," and "a seat at the table"?

4. Are there alternatives to the current system of campaign finance? How might you find out?

Organizing the questions
A flood of questions can be daunting. What do students regard as the most important questions? Why? How good are their reasons? How might the list be pared?

Pursuing answers

This inquiry project offers opportunities for individual, small-group and whole class inquiries. In each case, the quality of the questions will play a major role in the quality of the answers.

Cloudy questions will almost certainly produce cloudy answers. Unwarranted assumptions embedded in questions are likely to produce unwarranted responses. If students ask questions that require someone's opinion, they should consider whose opinion and why.

Students need to understand that questions are instruments of search and perception. They tell us what to look for; they determine what we see as well as what we don't see. The nature of a question, its form and assumptions, determines the nature of an answer.

For obvious reasons, inquiry projects take more time than class work in which texts and other materials given to students provide both questions and answers. A question for teachers: Which process will have the most success in mentally engaging students?

Before or during the inquiry project, teachers need to consider what instruction may be necessary on note-taking and its organization, reporting possibilities, preparing reports and working in a group. On the latter, an excellent source of strategies is Elizabeth G. Cohen, Designing Groupwork, Teachers College Press, 1986 (

Useful internet sources on presidential campaign fundraising

  • The Federal Election Commission ( is the official source of information on campaign finance regulations, candidates' finance reports, legal definitions of political action committees, 527 organizations and the like.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics ( is "a nonpartisan, non-profit research group based in Washington D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effects on elections and public policy....The Center's work is aimed at creating a more educated voter, an involved citizenry, and a more responsive government." Its website offers up-to-date information on where contributions to candidates are coming from and where they are going, profiles of industry contributions, background on 527 organizations, PACs and major donors, lobbying firm activities and expenditures, dates of all state primaries, etc.
  • Project Vote Smart ( is "a citizen's organization" that covers "candidates and elected officials in five basic categories: biographical information, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances and interest group ratings." The latter "reflect how often members of Congress or state legislators have voted with the organization's preferred position on legislation that the group considers key to in their area."
  • Common Cause ( is "a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization...for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest." It analyzes and proposes reforms for the current presidential public finance system, discusses in detail how publicly financed "clean election" systems work in a number of states and proposes reforms for the Federal Election Commission.
  • Public Citizen ( is primarily a consumer advocacy organization but "has long been committed to bringing about campaign finance reform." It regards "the best and most comprehensive" reform as "the public financing of all federal elections." An associated site,, provides up-to-date information on efforts to achieve such reform as well as Supreme Court and legislative actions affecting it. The site also "allows you to follow the money trail of campaign bundlers—or people who funnel money to campaigns-as they collect thousands and sometimes even millions of dollars from other people for the 2008 presidential candidates." (Students may want to consider why this kind of activity has drawn so much attention.) It also includes blogs, discussions of Constitutional issues, and information about public financing systems.

Note: See "Thinking Critically About Internet Sources" on this website for possible use with students before they begin their inquiry.

For citizenship

"Teaching Social Responsibility" on this website presents a number of possible citizenship activities for students in, as well as outside, the school.

Post-inquiry assessment

Questions for a teacher self-assessment

1. Were students mentally engaged? What makes you think so?

2. Did the inquiry process help to develop skills applicable to other subjects? Which?
What makes you think so?

3. What insights into the concepts behind the facts of fundraising do you think students
learned? What makes you think so?

4. What, if anything, would you do differently next time in a class inquiry? Why?

Questions for a student self-assessment
1. What do you think you learned about an inquiry process?

2. What, if anything, would you do differently next time in an inquiry process?

3. What were the three most important things you think you learned about presidential
campaign finance?

4. What would like to learn more about?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: