Public Financing: A 'Scarlet Letter' for Presidential Candidates

A guest post from Bloomberg’s money-and-politics whiz, Jonathan D. Salant (follow him on Twitter @JDSalant):

All the attention on Super PACs has overshadowed another, no less important story about how presidential campaigns are being funded: the post-Watergate campaign-finance program is on its death bed. This year, only one major-party presidential candidate, Republican Buddy Roemer, has agreed to limit his spending during the primary season in exchange for federal matching funds. As recently as 1996, every major-party candidate took federal funding, including Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

Even after George W. Bush in 2000 became the first nominee to shun federal funding, other candidates continued to rely on it in the primaries — including, in 2008, the eventual vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and five others. Under the federal financing system, the government this year will match up to $250 from an individual donation, with the maximum total amount set at $22.8 million, a number that rises every four years with inflation.

But that system has become a detriment, rather than a boon, to most presidential candidates. “Taking matching funds has really been seen as the scarlet letter,” said former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner, now co-chairman of the election law and government ethics practice at Wiley Rein LLP. “It says you’re not viable and you’re not going to be nominated by your party.”

Roemer’s national campaign manager, Carlos Sierra, countered with a more positive spin. “If more candidates went the matching funds route, that would mean fewer Wall Street and K Street fundraisers, and less favors candidates would have to promise to their big donors,” he said.

As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama became the first major-party nominee since Watergate to opt out of federal funding in the general election. His opponent, John McCain, did not, thereby agreeing to forego private funds (except for some legal and accounting costs) and limiting his campaign to the $84.1 million the government provided. McCain was significantly outspent, and Toner said he believes he’ll be the last nominee to accept federal funding.

“Absent a major legislative overhaul, no serious candidate is going to take public funds for either the primary or general election,” Toner said.

Twice last year, House Republicans voted to pull the plug on the campaign finance system, though advocates argue that a better solution is to provide more federal dollars.

“Our current system is broken,”  said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “It does not justify getting rid of the public financing program; it calls for fixing the public financing system.”

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