Candidates Weigh Taking Federal Campaign Money

In Depth

Read an overview of the candidates' money outlook, based on their most recent federal filings. Candidates' cash flow.

Public financing was meant to liberate presidential candidates from the money chase. But over the past several days, it has turned into another mallet in the whack-a-mole game of primary season.

That is because — as appealing as the federal funding is — it limits candidates in what they can spend. The three remaining presidential contenders have not taken, and may not even want, money from the federal public-financing system.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign accuses Illinois Sen. Barack Obama of breaking a promise to use public funds in the general election race if he wins the nomination.

Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson, says, "[Obama] pledged earlier in this campaign to opt into the public financing system, if he were the nominee, and then he decided apparently not to. That is not a promise that he kept."

But Clinton's campaign sidesteps the fact that she has expressed little interest in using public funds herself. In fact, she has already raised nearly $20 million for the general election — many multiples of Obama's general election fundraising.

Still, Obama's position is not so clear, either.

One year ago, Obama seemed to make a commitment and asked the Federal Election Commission about raising early money for the general election on a "provisional" basis. If the Republican nominee opted for public funds, he would, too.

Three months ago, Obama stood his ground on a questionnaire from 20 public interest groups in the Midwest, writing, "I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican."

But now, the Obama campaign says it was not a pledge, just an option. The campaign declined to have anyone speak on the record for this story.

Obama's campaign calls the whole question of public financing "hypothetical" — something to be negotiated later with the GOP candidate.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is on track to be that candidate and says he wants to take public funds this fall. He is criticizing Obama for hedging.

"I don't know what there is to negotiate," says Trevor Potter, McCain's campaign finance lawyer. "It's pretty straight forward. You either accept the money and the restrictions that are in the law or you don't."

What is not so straight forward is McCain's own stance. He rejected public funds for the primaries. Just like Obama and Clinton, he did not want to get trapped in a system that provided taxpayer funds, but restricted total spending to $50 million — all the way to the conventions.

Then, McCain's campaign fell on hard times. He applied for the primary-season matching funds. The Federal Election Commission approved the application, but McCain never cashed in his certificates.

Instead, McCain went to a bank and received a line of credit. As Potter notes, McCain did not put up the public-financing certificates as collateral.

But then the McCain campaign renegotiated for a bigger line of credit. The loan documents said that if McCain lost the New Hampshire primary and finished more than 10 points behind the winner, then he would have to stay in the race and reapply for public funds, which would become the new collateral.

Lawyer Cleta Mitchell has long criticized McCain's role in overhauling campaign-finance laws. Pointing to the terms of the loan, she accuses McCain of gaming the system.

"They got another million dollars with, really, no additional collateral, other than a promise that if he didn't do well, they'd go get it from the federal government," Mitchell says.

In any event, the provision was never at issue because McCain won New Hampshire.

Now, all three candidates are feverishly raising private funds. Their reports for January are due by midnight Wednesday.

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