The End of Public Financing for the Presidential Election?

Speculations about what kind of sea change the Internet has enabled for campaigning and how that sea change will translate on election day for the US president have been ubiquitous (really, it’s difficult to avoid a media outlet that isn’t opining about how the Internet is helping the Obama campaign with grassroots organization and fundraising). But news sources are starting to take note that another consequence of the unprecedented success of online fundraising will be the complete irrelevance of public campaign financing.

Although both McCain and Obama both pledged to opt into the public financing system for the general election if the other party’s candidate did the same, The Wall Street Journal reports that “Obama is poised to run the first privately financed general-election presidential campaign since Watergate”. Obama had previously said that he would “aggressively pursue” a publicly funded campaign, but according to the article, Obama “has laid the groundwork, through seeking a Federal Election Commission ruling, to reject traditional taxpayer funding.”

Because Clinton’s private fundraising would also likely exceed the amount that the public financing scheme would provide her, there is good reason to believe that she will opt out as well.

Because of the restrictions that accepting public financing imposes on candidates, candidates that opt out of the system would be far more independent of state parties and their respective party’s National Committees and would not need to coordinate with them for “get-out-the-vote efforts”. Or, as one of the lawyers from Kerry’s presidential campaign explains, “It’s just easier. You don’t have to talk to anybody. You can just write the check.”

And taking the relationship between Obama and the Democratic National Committee as an example, the unprecedented fundraising of individual campaigns that the Internet seems to have enabled may mean an outright shift in dependence. With only $5 million on hand, the DNC has entered a joint fundraising agreement with the Obama campaign and is negotiating for an agreement with the Clinton Campaign.

Of course, Presidential candidates have been relying less on public financing since the 2000 election, when now President Bush opted out of the system for the Republican primary. For the 2008 election, Obama, Clinton, and McCain have all opted out of the system for the primaries.

Still, it will be interesting to see how the ability to be structurally independent from public financing will alter the dynamics between candidates and national parties, local parties, and state politicians.

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One Response to “The End of Public Financing for the Presidential Election?”

  1. Tony Pell Says:

    In campaign financing, Economic Class predominates — and is that acceptable in a truly democratic society? Compared with practice and law in Western Europe in general (presumably democracies….?), the profligacy of spending in US elections is tantamount to buying votes. The process today, though, is carried out on every level, from precinct to town to county to state and beyond, instead of through Wards as in the past. During a recent business trip to Europe I was again questioned by folks on all sides of the political spectrum (from left-leaning Social Democrats to staunch right-wing Conservatives) how the US can proclaim itself a great democracy when bank account electioneering is the rule rather than the exception. Free Speech is not defined by who can Yell Loudest, ie pay the most, is it? By a Political Financial Complex sitting easily next to its blood brother, the Military Industrial Complex? Free Flow of Information from those with deepest pockets?