Once up a time – it was maybe eight years ago – people worried that the presidential campaign financing system would break down because people weren’t checking off the box on their tax returns to dedicate some of their taxes to the fund.
That concern seems quaint now, as all serious campaigns turn down federal matching funds during the primary campaign, and for the first time both campaigns will turn down public financing for the general election campaign. Under the campaign finance laws, accepting matching funds for the nomination also means accepting limits on overall spending totals, while those candidates who accept public financing for the general election cannot raise or spend anything else. Over the past several years, it’s become a lot easier for campaigns to raise money (and, just as important, to raise it cheaply), and consequently they’re all rejecting the bargain of free, but limited, money.
Is this a problem? For the most part, I don’t think so. Having lots of money in the system – estimates are that each major party nominee will raise well over $500 million – strikes me as mostly a good thing, not a bad one. If you value politics, you should, in my view, value fully funded campaigns. Meanwhile, the problem of corruption is less of an issue when so many people give so much money; a million dollar donor is a drop in the bucket for these campaigns, and while they certainly want to get as many as they can, it’s unlikely that any particular donor, no matter how large, has much leverage over the candidates and, after the election, on the president.
In reality most of that huge amount of money will likely be wasted; the logic of campaigns is that there are sharply diminishing returns for campaign spending, especially given all the other information out there about presidential candidates. That’s unfortunate for the donors, I suppose, but that’s not a real issue in democracy. No, the trouble in campaign finance that bothers me the most isn’t corruption, or the massive sums spent on presidential campaigns; it’s the fact that many Senate challengers and most House challengers can’t raise enough to run minimally viable campaigns. The solution to that, in my view is to put a layer of public financing as a floor for all major party congressional nominees, while loosening the rules to make it easier for them to raise larger amounts of money. Floors, not ceilings (plus meaningful disclosure).
In the abstract, one might think that the money now leftover from presidential campaign public financing could be diverted into a new congressional system; alas, the odds of that ever happening are extraordinarily slim, since it would be bad for incumbents, and they’re the ones who would have to vote it in. At any rate, it’s congressional elections, not presidential elections, that have the real campaign finance problem.