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Successful participation, especially in federal elections, requires large amounts of money, especially for television advertising. This money is very difficult to raise by appeals to a mass base, although in the 2008 election, candidates from both parties had success with raising money from citizens over the Internet, as had Howard Dean with his Internet appeals. Both parties generally depend on wealthy donors and organizations—traditionally the Democrats depended on donations from organized labor while the Republicans relied on business donations. This dependency on donors is controversial, and has led to laws limiting spending on political campaigns being enacted (see campaign finance reform). Opponents of campaign finance laws cite the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, and challenge campaign finance laws because they attempt to circumvent the people's constitutionally guaranteed rights. Even when laws are upheld, the complication of compliance with the First Amendment requires careful and cautious drafting of legislation, leading to laws that are still fairly limited in scope, especially in comparison to those of other countries such as the United Kingdom, France or Canada.

Fundraising plays a large role in getting a candidate elected to public office. Without money, a candidate may have little chance of achieving their goal. In the 2004 general elections, 95% of House races and 91% of senate races were won by the candidates who spent the most on their campaigns. Attempts to limit the influence of money on American political campaigns dates back to the 1860s. Recently, Congress passed legislation requiring candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions, how the campaign money is spent, and regulated use of "soft money" contributions.

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