Make publicly financed campaigns viable

The blistering pace of presidential fundraising continued unabated in the third quarter. Just four years ago it would have been hard to fathom that having raised more than $30 million a full year before the election would leave a candidate in a distant second tier of fundraisers, tens of millions of dollars behind the front-runners.

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Former Sen. John Edwards’s (D) recent announcement that he will seek to utilize the presidential public financing was interpreted as a death knell by pundits and journalists. His decision is yet another indication that only those candidates losing the fundraising fight will participate. The leading contenders — such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) on the Democratic side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side — will forgo the system’s matching money in the primary to join the race for a record amount of campaign contributions. They have decided — with good reason, unfortunately — that the cash flow and the constraints of a system created more than 30 years ago, are not able to keep up with the modern campaign.

Opponents of the presidential public financing system, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have successfully rebuffed repeated attempts to update the system. So it is no surprise that the system is not working. But the system is like a car whose maintenance has been routinely ignored. When the car breaks down, it doesn’t mean the car itself was a lemon, only that it was not sufficiently maintained by those who have a duty to keep it running effectively.

So what can the American people expect in the 2008 presidential elections since the presidential public financing system is not in good working order?

For one thing, candidates are spending huge amounts of time raising money. The most efficient use of that time is to spend it with donors who can fork over the maximum — $2,300, or $4,600 if you include the general election. Small-donor events are certainly part of the mix but there is a premium on finding and securing donations in the thousands, not the hundreds. While the Internet is providing an important new source of small donors, front-runners will spend more of their face time with large donors who will expect to be remembered if and when their candidate is in office.

Without a working presidential public financing system, collecting the maximum contribution is not even the most efficient use of the candidate’s resources. Recruiting bundlers is. Bundlers do the hard work of soliciting and amassing large amounts of contributions. This is vital in a presidential campaign that just saw the top two Democratic contenders announce more than $40 million combined contributions in the traditionally “slow” third quarter.

Without the presidential public financing system in good working order, the sky will be the limit for spending on television advertisements in targeted states. Television ad estimates for the 2008 elections have topped $3 billion with the lion’s share to be spent by the presidential candidates. The presidential public financing system, with its spending limits, acted as a bit of a brake on this spending and, more importantly, provided those candidates with enough funds to ensure their message out, so they could compete in the field of ideas. In this election, these non-front-runners using public financing are going to have a very difficult time being heard as their well-heeled rivals buy much more airtime.

Without the presidential public financing system in good working order, we are seeing other fundraising vehicles, particularly leadership PACs and 527 organizations, take on a more important role in the campaign. The 527 organizations have risen to prominence in the vacuum created by a crippled presidential public financing system and a Federal Election Commission still unwilling to promulgate common sense rules to treat many of them as political committees. These stealth PACs will not only continue to operate in the shadows, but they will play a critical role in swing states in 2008.

 Until the presidential public financing system is updated, second-tier candidates will have an even slimmer chance of succeeding which will further curb the nation’s political discourse.  It is a system that deserves to be fixed for the health of our democracy.  Regardless of what one thinks of the politics of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or John McCain, few would argue that the national political dialogue was expanded and enhanced by their presence.  The same can be said of others whose campaigns depended on the presidential public financing system.

McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. She also heads up McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.