Former president George W. Bush began the exodus from the public finance system in 2000, when he refused to take matching funds for the primaries and caucuses. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first candidate to decline public financing in the general election. This year, only one presidential contender sought and qualified for public financing: Martin O’Malley, who has already dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination.
Even Bernie Sanders, who has made limiting the political influence of the wealthy a central tenet of his campaign, has no intention of taking public financing. Under questioning by NBC’s Chuck Todd at a debate in New Hampshire last week, he called the program “a disaster,” adding: “Nobody can become president based on that system.”
And so, the funding mechanism devised after the Watergate scandal to prevent the unseemly spectacle of candidates for the nation’s highest office cadging funds from well-heeled special interest pleaders is “basically dead,” says Ken Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies public campaign finance systems.
The reason has nothing to do with altruism on the part of office-seekers, or concern about the public debt. Public financing has grown unpopular with presidential candidates because the amount of money it offers them, which is indexed to inflation, hasn’t kept up with the torrid pace of campaign giving or the ingenious ways that private donors have discovered to insert themselves into campaigns.
There are now more than 5,800 political action committees and nearly 1,500 super PACs, entities that, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, collected more than $100 million in the last six months of 2015, much of it in seven-figure donations. Not to mention an untold number of so-called “dark money” organizations that, because of their tax-exempt status, never have to disclose their donors. In some cases, they don’t even disclose their existence until after they spend money to influence a campaign.
In the current market, why would any self-respecting presidential candidate accept $96 million for the general election campaign and $48 million for the primaries — the amount the law makes available for 2016 candidates — when private investors in the political process are prepared to up the ante to billions? To do so would be to risk getting seriously out-spent by an opponent, as John McCain was in his 2000 fight for the Republican nomination against Bush and his 2008 general election campaign against Obama. McCain’s campaign lawyer, former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, says the Arizona Republican was “screwed by the failure of this system.”
As is often the case in Washington, there are conflicting views about what to do about it.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who two years ago successfully pushed legislation to end public financing of the four-day commercials formerly known as political conventions, has introduced legislation to dissolve the public fund for presidential campaigns and eliminate the taxpayer check-off that underwrites it. “Serious candidates aren’t using it,” he says. “We could either save the money or fund some other program.”
Backed by a number of campaign finance reform organizations, several Democrats — Reps. Tom Price of North Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico — have introduced a bill to overhaul the public funding program. Their bill would up the taxpayer check-off from $3 to $20, end spending limits for qualifying candidates and match small donations at a rate of six-to-one, a formula that has proved successful in New York City. But “the prognosis in a Republican-controlled Congress is not good,” Price acknowledges.
A Republican actually was the first president to support public financing: Teddy Roosevelt took up the cause in his 1907 State of the Union address. “It is well to provide that corporations shall not contribute to presidential or national campaigns” the Trust-Buster opined. Roosevelt also presciently observed the “danger in laws of this kind . . . that they will be obeyed only by the honest and disobeyed by the unscrupulous.” To avoid enacting something that he admitted would be “difficult of enforcement,” Roosevelt proposed what he called “a very radical measure” — public financing for presidential campaigns. It wasn’t until six decades later that legislation to create such a system was actually enacted.
The identity of the successful reformer also is a bit of historical irony: Legendary backroom dealer Russell Long. Despite (or perhaps because of) his role as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a veritable honeypot to special-interest-pleaders, the Louisiana Democrat shared the dim view his father, quintessential populist Huey Long, took of the influence of the wealthy on politics.
“The distinction between a campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline’s difference,” the younger Long once observed.
After failing to get his public funding plan enacted through more conventional means, Long resorted to a tried-and-true Senate backdoor tactic: He attached it to a “must-pass” appropriations bill as his colleagues were rushing for the doors to hit the campaign trail for reelection in 1966.
So the public finance system became law — only to be eviscerated the following year. Again, the prime actors were unexpected: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. teamed up with Sen. Al Gore Sr. (father of the future vice president and Nobel Prize winner) to keep then-President Lyndon Johnson from getting a pot of cash that could help him quash a 1968 primary challenger. (LBJ, of course, didn’t even wind up seeking reelection that year.)
Not until after the Watergate scandal, with its unseemly tales of dubious characters showing up at President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign with suitcases stuffed with cash, did Congress revive Long’s system.
For a long time, it appeared to be a success.
Eight U.S. presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1976, won elections with the help of public financing. Three past presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — each received more than $20 million in matching funds to help them in the primaries. “This system worked extremely well for two decades,” says Fred Wertheimer, head of the good-government group Democracy 21 and a lobbyist for Common Cause when the fund was created.
In fact, however, the system was under pressure from the start. Joe Stoltz, who retired in 2011 as the head of the FEC’s audit division and who oversaw the presidential fund from its inception, says it was “doomed to fail eventually from the beginning,” because while payouts were indexed to inflation, deposits were not.
There are also technical problems. One reason candidates began to opt out of matching funds for primaries and caucuses, campaign strategists say, isn’t the overall spending cap but how the money is allocated. Individual state spending limits are set by voting age population rather than by where the state falls in the primary and caucus calendar. This year, for instance, candidates who take matching funds would be limited to spending $1.8 million in Iowa and less than $1 million in New Hampshire, but could spend $23 million in California, which doesn’t vote until June 7.
Cole argues that technology has obviated the public financing system anyway. Underdog candidates like Obama in 2008 and Sanders this year have shown that it’s possible to raise large sums of money from small donors over the Internet. But reformers like Price point out that even campaigns powered by small donors still get most of their money from big ones: The more than $200 million Obama got in donations of under $250 for his 2012 campaign only accounted for 34 percent of his total fundraising.
There’s another statistic that supporters of public financing like to cite: The number of fundraisers Ronald Reagan attended during his presidential campaign (the number varies, but the general conclusion is that it was in the single digits) compared to the more than 200 Obama headlined in 2012. “Is this the life we want our presidents to lead?” says Nick Penniman, founder of Issue One, a group that’s trying to develop a bipartisan consensus for campaign finance reform. “That’s the problem,” agrees former FEC chair Potter. Presidents and presidential candidates “end up spending a great deal of time with a very small circle of people,” he says. Reviving a public financing system would, Potter argues, free presidents so “they can spend time with the other 99 percent.”
None of the supporters of the public finance system believes a fix is imminent. Many believe it will have to come as part of a broader overhaul of campaign finance laws. What hopes they have are pegged to the theory that the sheer amount of money sloshing around and the effort it takes to raise it isn’t sustainable. Some, like Potter, cite the now-it-can-be-told column Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) penned about the mortifications of fundraising after he announced his retirement. The money seekers aren’t the only ones with a case of the fed-ups: “I had one Republican donor tell me that the caliber of the bullet we’re putting in right now is going to blow the barrel off,” says Penniman.
Wertheimer practices a Zen-like optimism. “I don’t worry about the idea that it’s impossible to do right now,” says the long-time good-government advocate, who was already stalking the halls of Congress when Watergate prompted the creation of the presidential public campaign fund. “These are cyclical issues. The moment comes.”