Big Campaigns Undermine Public-Financing System

Sen. Barack Obama's tentative step toward a White House run sets the stage for a fundraising free-for-all among Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Obama, the first-term Democrat from Illinois, announced by posting a video on the Web site of his new presidential exploratory committee. He said Americans are hungry for a new kind of political debate.

"Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first," he said.

But in order to do that, Obama has to plunge into that gummed-up system, and put together a winning campaign.

How much might that cost?

"I think we're gonna see multiple candidates raising $100 million this year alone," says Federal Election Commissioner Michael Toner. He points out that in the 2004 primaries, President Bush and Democrat John Kerry raised more than $250 million each.

"I continue to believe that the nominees of the two major parties will end up raising $500 million apiece in this 2008 race, so it's going to be the first billion-dollar election," Toner predicts.

It also could be the first presidential election since 1972 in which none of the big players take federal matching funds.

The public financing program was enacted after the Watergate scandal. It was meant to ease the pressure for fundraising and at the same time, boost the impact of small donors in the primaries. If candidates agree to spending limits, they can get federal funds to match their small constributions.

And it worked fairly well, without major changes, for two decades.

But in 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush opted out of public financing for the primaries. He raised more than $100 million and quickly forced some of his poorer competitors to withdraw.

In 2004, President Bush took private funds again. So did Democrats Kerry and Howard Dean.

This year, the question is whether the two party nominees will go private for the general election, something that has never happened before.

Meanwhile, the system for the primaries is obsolete. Public funds are so low, and spending limits are so tight, that a publicly financed candidate will instantly be relegated to the second tier.

Congress has shown zero interest in fixing a system that political scientist Michael Malbin says is worth saving.

"Think of it like this," Malbin says. "If it weren't for public funding, then the outsider challenger candidates named Ronald Reagan in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1980, never would've had a chance."

And this time, Malbin and others are afraid that outsider candidates who take public financing will just be left in the dust.

Among Democrats, two candidates go in with a head start.

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who has NOT announced, has $14 million in the bank, left over after she won re-election last year.

Obama is seen as having the star power to compete with Clinton on the fundraising circuit.

It's commonly thought that these two could soak up most of the available cash.

Steve Elmendorf worked for two presidential campaigns last time: Dick Gephardt's, then John Kerry's.

Elmendorf says the first-quarter campaign-finance reports will be like report cards on the candidates. They're due after March 31, and as Elmendorf points out, they're "quantifiable," meaning candidates who don't have big money accumulated in the first reporting period will be seen as less viable.

And that's with nine months to go before any Democrats actually get to vote.

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