A noble idea that simply won’t work.
Among the most oft-repeated refrains among advocates of campaign finance reform on the left is the idea that publicly funding campaigns will serve as a panacea for all that is wrong with our campaign finance system. In their estimation, providing federal dollars to fund political campaigns will diminish the impact of high dollar donations, which are viewed as corrosive, and will loosen the grip of special interests on our elected officials. The assumption is that if candidates are given the money they need through federal funds, they won’t need to conduct their own nonstop fundraising activities and the influence of money on candidates and politicians will be reduced or eliminated altogether. Public funding has been available for presidential candidates for about 50 years and many advocates suggest extending the program to other federal candidates. There’s just one problem – the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF) demonstrates that this program doesn’t work.
There are three types of public financing: matching funds, full public financing grants, and hybrid models. Matching funds provide candidates with money that equals or multiplies small dollar donations they receive (for example, New York City matches every dollar a candidate receives with six dollars in public funding). There are generally caps put on the donation amount eligible for matching (in other words, only donations up to $100 may be matched, for example). Full public financing, referred to as “clean elections” or “voter-owned elections” fully fund candidates up to a specified limit in exchange for a promise not to raise any private money. One way to carry out this type of program is to provide vouchers or tax credits to individuals to put towards campaigns. Hybrid models adopt several approaches at once, such as matching all small dollar donations, including those given via tax credit.
The goal is clear: eliminate the corrupting influence of big money in politics by promoting small dollar contributions from a larger group of citizens.
We’ve tested this theory at the federal level. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), enables presidential candidates to publicly fund their campaigns in exchange for voluntarily accepting certain limitations on expenditures and fundraising (including that candidates not accept any private dollars). But the program has largely been dying a slow death ever since President Obama became the first major party candidate to reject both primary and general election matching funds in 2008. (President George W. Bush declined public financing in his 2000 primary campaign). The calculus just doesn’t make sense anymore. As FiveThirtyEight explained, “Obama and Romney would have each received $91.2 million from the Treasury for the 2012 campaign if they had taken public financing. But by 2012, Obama and the Democratic Party had raised over $1 billion; Romney and the Republicans raised $993 million.” With the explosion of money pouring into campaigns these days, no presidential candidate would stand a chance of winning if they accepted public matching funds while their opponent declined.
Likewise, for congressional campaigns, it’s hard to imagine that, absent any cap on spending (which has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo), that any candidate would accept public funding, which voluntarily caps spending. Doing so guarantees that they will be outspent and, therefore, most likely defeated as the vast majority of candidates that win elections are the ones that spend the most. As long as public funding is voluntary for candidates, it will be ineffective, if it is utilized at all. John Bonifaz, Co-Founder and President of Free Speech for People, points out that public financing that caps spending is meaningless in an environment in which super PACs can serve as proxies with unlimited funding, able to drown out the speech of opposing campaigns.
The theory behind public financing of political campaigns is a decent one – reduce the prevalence of money in politics and you can reduce the influence of money on politics. But reality has shown that during an era of explosive campaign spending, this is just not a practical solution. All public funding programs are voluntary (as they should be), and as such they set targets for opposing candidates, telling them how much they have to raise to order to outspend others in the race. While these types of programs may be successful at the state and local level, there is no way for them to succeed in races that now routinely cost millions of dollars.