Expert Commentary

Financing presidential nominations in the post-public funding era

2011 study from Colby College on history and trends relating to presidential campaign finance.

Roughly $1.2 billion was spent by candidates during the 2008 presidential election cycle; this means that over the past three cycles, the aggregate money spent has been roughly doubling every four years. Many observers now speak of a “breakdown” in the public financing system, implemented during the 1970s, as major candidates — from George W. Bush to Barack Obama — choose not to participate and to agree to its limits.

A 2011 paper from a Colby College scholar published in the book The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012, ed. William Mayer, “Financing Presidential Nominations in the Post-Public Funding Era,” looks at the historical background leading up to this moment and evaluates broad trends and themes. (The paper here is posted with permission of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield; this material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.)

The paper also looks at how issues that emerged from 2008 may play out in 2012 and continue to bring about “dramatic change.” Key insights that bear on the 2012 race include:

  • “The return of private financing of presidential campaigns may … serve to enhance the advantages of an incumbent or unchallenged aspirant for the nomination has with respect to campaign financing.” President Obama will be able to “spend unlimited amounts of money during the prenomination period on activities largely designed to get a head start on general election campaigning.”
  • “One lesson of 2008 is that money can help establish a candidate’s viability and front-runner status early in a race, and can play a crucial role in helping survive the rigors of the front-loaded presidential primary process. But a candidate with major weaknesses or one who does not excite a following of passionate supporters cannot resolve these problems by simply spending money. “
  • “To the extent that they do take something from the 2008 Republican experience, it will be to question McCain’s decision to accept public funding in the general election and thereby cede a significant financial advantage to his opponent.”
  • The 2012 race will take place in an even more distributed and mobile technology enabled environment. This will aid frontrunners, as supporters will find it even easier to contribute money “no matter where they are physically located.” But insurgent candidates are also expected to benefit, as those with specific ideological angles can more efficiently locate and engage those citizens who would be natural supporters.
  • Because of two major campaign finance-related legal decisions — the Citizens United and SpeechNow vs. FEC cases — interest groups and organizations may now spend funds directly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate, so long as they do not coordinate with the campaign. The race for money may thus be expected to escalate, as “contenders pursue the dollars needed to defend themselves against such [outside] efforts.”

Given these large-scale changes in digital communications and the “less stringent regulatory framework” around campaign finance, the paper’s author suggests that two major questions relating to such financing hang in the balance during the 2012 election: “Does the experience of Obama in 2008 suggest that small donors will play a greater role in the financing of future campaigns? Or will large donors and groups relying on unregulated contributions continue to be a major source of money in presidential elections?”

Tags: presidency