Unlike Barack Obama, John McCain opted into the public funding system for presidential campaigns, meaning he gave up the right to raise private contributions once nominated by the Republican Party.
So what’s the big green “Donate Now” button doing on the front page of www.JohnMcCain.com, which we spotted roughly where the Gustav button had been? (The most prominent spots seem to cycle, but you can also find it bottom right.)
The site is soliciting contributions for a "compliance fund," which is intended to "defray legal and accounting compliance costs," an exception to fund-raising limits under federal public-campaign-finance rules. Thus the cheery acronym GELAC, for "general-election legal and accounting compliance" fund.
Of course, money is fungible, so to the extent that the McCain-Palin campaign can cover its accounting and legal-compliance costs with donations, it can -- as the Web site says on the donation page -- "preserve the Campaign's public grant for media, mail, phones, and get-out-the-vote programs."
But wait -- it turns out the money can also go to television advertising, up to 5% of the cost of advertising. How's that? It pays for those little audio blurbs noting that the candidate approves the message -- you know, the ones typically showing the candidate looking presidential or like a man of the people. The Kerry-Edwards campaign sought, and received, the exception in 2004, according to the Campaign Legal Center (which doesn't like the dodge).
It doesn't sound like much, but 5% could add up. From June 3 through July 30, the McCain campaign spent a little over $21 million on TV advertising, the Wisconsin Advertising Project determined. (Obama's campaign spent more than $27 million, and together the candidates aired more than 100,000 ads, up from 77,000 in the same period in 2004). For McCain, 5% of that total would have been a little over $1 million.
Public campaign financing, paid for through that $3 check-box on your federal tax form, comes with various strings, the Federal Election Commission notes in an illustrated brochure on its Web site. Candidates must agree to spend no more than the public grant -- $84.1 million in 2008 -- plus $50,000 of his or her own , and can't raise private funds.
"Private contributions may, however, be accepted for a special account maintained exclusively to pay for legal and accounting expenses associated with complying with the campaign finance law," the FEC says. "These legal and accounting expenses are not subject to the expenditure limit."
Candidates can always decline public financing -- as Obama did -- in which case they are free to raise as much as they can under federal law.