For as long as there have been political campaigns, there have been critics of how those campaigns are financed. Good government groups deride campaigns that raise and spend bucketloads of money, fearing those campaigns have a leg up over their challengers. The more a campaign spends, they argue, the better chance the candidate has at winning an election. Apparently they believe there exists a “magic candidate” who is being held out of office for lack of resources, and they decry the undue influence of money on choosing our elected officials.

Perhaps they should purchase a newspaper.

In 2008, America will pick a new president. At this point, despite wildly disparate fundraising numbers between the candidates, nobody has a clue who the next chief executive will be. While some candidates are dropping money out of airplanes and faring poorly in the polls, others have caught fire while running their campaigns on food stamps.

The reason? Voters just might deserve more credit than they get from campaign finance reformers. In fact, the list of reasons candidates appeal to voters is long and varied – and financing often only plays an ancillary role. Fundraising doesn’t guarantee success. In sports parlance, there’s a reason they play the games.

In three years, Barack Obama has gone from being an Illinois State Senator to an even-money bet to be the next president. In doing so, he has stared down the political machine of a candidate whose name has been on the lips of American voters for 16 years, despite raising nearly $10 million less than Hillary Clinton.

With less fundraising prowess than the Clinton campaign, how has Obama surged to where he is now? The reasons are myriad. He’s attractive. He delivers thunderous, inspirational speeches that appeal to people’s hopes and dreams. He has the support of a slobbering press corps. And he has the backing of Oprah Nation.

Of course, all of these attributes tell us nothing about how he would govern as president. But they influence voters – some would say they provide undue influence on the electorate. After all – what’s the cash value of Oprah’s endorsement? A gazillion dollars? At the very least it, has to be as much as John Edwards’ entire budget for hair care products.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee has done for campaign finance reform what David Koresh did for Waco as a family vacation destination. While spending virtually nothing, the quick-witted Huckabee pummeled his Republican opponents in Iowa on a campaign of charm, Godspeak, and Chuck Norris jokes.

Conversely, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been printing his own money during the campaign, yet has been collecting nothing but humiliating losses as a result. In Iowa, Romney was pounded by Huckabee despite dumping millions of dollars on the state. Television station owners all across Iowa will be sending their children to Ivy League schools based on Romney’s generosity alone.

Romney suffered a similar fate in New Hampshire, only this time to John McCain. According to reports, candidates of both parties spent $23.9 million in television ads in New Hampshire – of that total, Romney spent $9 million. Yet McCain, who spent $3.6 million on TV ads, emerged with a convincing victory, which may just propel him back into being a legitimate contender. Rudy Giuliani spent $2.4 million on television in New Hampshire, yet barely beat out fringe candidate Ron Paul for fourth place.

All of these instances indicate that voters are picking their candidates for a variety of reasons – yet campaign spending doesn’t seem to be one of them. As for Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, they lack some of the influential qualities other candidates do have, and it’s just not fair.

This is why we clearly need regulations in place to have a truly egalitarian field for presidential candidates. Since issues are the only thing that should influence voters, we need to control for the other attributes that might unfairly sway voters away from a candidate who might not be so fortunate.

For instance, we need to eliminate Barack Obama’s good looks from the equation. From now on, Obama should be forced to wear a ridiculous, bushy fake mustache when he gives speeches. We’ll see if women voters are as enthusiastic about his message of hope when he looks like Borat. (Although, admittedly, he might earn my vote if he did so.)

Next, we need to equalize the market for celebrity endorsements. When Chuck Norris endorses Mike Huckabee, every other candidate in the field will be assigned a taxpayer-financed washed-up action star to serve as their campaign spokesman. Jean-Claude Van Damme, we need your cell phone number – looks like John Edwards is cratering!

Under my plan, candidates will be barred from playing instruments while on the campaign trail. Everyone remembers Bill Clinton’s thrust in popularity after he played the saxophone on late night television. Mike Huckabee recently showed up on Jay Leno playing the bass guitar. (Less memorable was Steve Forbes’ performance of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” on the triangle.) Whether a candidate can play a few notes on an instrument doesn’t tell me what I need to know about their position on CAFTA.

Finally, we need to get rid of all these troublesome catchwords that seem to be getting people so excited. Obama should be limited to two uses of the word “hope” per speech. Huckabee should only be allowed to refer to God as “the man who lives in the clouds,” and will be limited to using the following joke, written by my four year-old daughter:

Q: “What did the fish say to the seaweed?”

A: “Fish can’t talk!”

All of these important reforms will give real people a chance to run for office. Real ugly, dull, uninformed people.

Then again, maybe we should just recognize that voters are smarter and more complex than we have given them credit for. Maybe the things we think influence their votes, like “excessive” campaign spending, aren’t really all that important. Perhaps citizens see through campaign ads and pick their elected officials on actual substance.

Undeterred, good government groups in Wisconsin forge on with their plans to use taxpayer money to solve the fundraising “arms race” that leaves some candidates with more money than others. These groups believe candidates raise money, which makes them more viable. In fact, they have it exactly backward – it is the best candidates that are able to attract contributions once they have demonstrated their electoral worthiness. What they do with their funds at that point is their own business – and quite often doesn’t mean victory. Until we can control for all the variables in a campaign, some candidates will continue to have natural advantages that appeal more broadly to voters.

-January 10, 2008

UPDATE: Originally, this column suggested Charles Bronson as the go-to washed up action star. Unfortunately, it appears that Bronson has been practicing his own vigilante brand of justice in heaven since 2003. RIP.