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Clinton Bid Heralds Demise of Public Financing

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By Dan Balz and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The public financing system designed to clean up presidential campaigns in the wake of the Watergate scandal may have died on Saturday when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) announced her bid for the White House.

Little noticed amid the announcement rollout was a page on her Web site in which she asked potential contributors to give her campaign checks of up to $4,200. That figure signaled not only that she plans to forgo public funds for primary season but also that, if she becomes the nominee, she will not take public money for the general election.

By opting out of the system, Clinton will be able to spend as much money as she can raise, both for the primaries and for the general election, rather than being forced to abide by strict spending limits imposed by the Federal Election Commission on candidates who accept public financing.

Others have opted out of public financing for the nomination campaigns, but Clinton is the first since the current structure was created in 1974 to declare she will forgo public financing in the general election as well.

Clinton's decision will put pressure on other candidates in both parties to follow suit, and if they do, the 2008 campaign will complete what has been the rapid disintegration of a system designed to rein in unlimited spending in presidential campaigns.

One effect is to put lesser-known candidates at a further disadvantage in competing with rivals who have the capacity to raise huge amounts of money.

"It's going to be a tremendous test of whether this system survives," Robert Lenhard, chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said of the pressure building on the existing system. Michael Toner, his predecessor, was less restrained. This election, he predicted, will be "basically the death" of public financing.

Under the current system, candidates raise money for the nomination battle and can qualify for public funds. For the general election, however, the federal government underwrites the entire cost of the campaign but limits candidate spending to a fixed amount, meaning the nominees have never raised money for that part of the campaign. By starting to raise funds for both the primary and general elections, Clinton made it clear she plans to opt out of the entire system.

The 2008 campaign will be the most expensive in history. Candidates may be raising $2 million a week or more between now and early next year, and the eventual nominees of both parties will raise tens of millions between the time they clinch the nomination and the national conventions in late summer 2008.

Clinton is one of several candidates believed to have the capacity to finance their entire campaigns without any federal money, along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). A campaign plan for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani indicated he would try to raise $100 million by early next year to win the nomination. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) attracted contributions and pledges worth $6.5 million in one day earlier this month.

President Bush built the new primary-season system in the past two campaigns, designating his most prodigious fundraisers -- those who raised $100,000 or $200,000 -- Pioneers and Rangers. The trend gives greater influence to wealthy fundraisers who can tap rich friends.

Campaigns are learning to tap into smaller contributors using the Internet, but Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said the breakdown of the system ultimately will put more distance between politicians and the people they are seeking to represent. "The pool of people that you're going to to finance the presidential election, the very nature of that pool of people is changing, and it's changing for the worse," she said.


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