Public vs. grassroots campaign financing (part 2)
by Sebastian Benthall
If grassroots funding does not really solve the problem of campaign finance, then what other option is there?
Public campaign financing–where the state provides money for candidates to run–is the more traditional solution. If the state provides funding to qualified candidates irrespective of their political positions, then that means that only voter preferences will determine who will win office.
That’s how it works in theory, at least. In practice, there are several problems with the current public campaign financing systems, and especially our current presidential system.
One of those problems is qualification. Obviously, you can’t just give public campaign funding to everybody. But if the conditions of qualification reiterate the conditions for financing a private campaign, then public funding doesn’t help anybody. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens with the current presidential funding laws:
At the federal level, public funding is limited to subsidies for presidential candidates. To receive subsidies in the primary, candidates must qualify by privately raising $5000 each in at least 20 states. For qualified candidates, the government provides a dollar for dollar “match” from the government for each contribution to the campaign, up to a limit of $250 per contribution. In return, the candidate agrees to limit his or her spending according to a statutory formula.
This is lame. Contrast it with the Clean Elections financing system used in Maine, Arizona, and elsewhere. In this system, candidates qualify by getting some number of seed donations (commonly limited to $5) that demonstrate popular support. In systems like these, qualification correlates to voters, not dollars.
Great entries, Seb– one thing I would point out, which I think is of pretty high relevance in this particular situation, is that there are loopholes in our campaign fundraising laws that allow rich backers to supplant individual campaign’s coffers with additional funds, regardless of their public financing status. I’m referring specifically to 521 organizations like MoveOn.Org PAC (as a leftist example) and the Swift Boat Veterans (as a contrary example), who are capable of independently fundraising and pouring large amounts of money into campaign airtime and other messaging and organizing costs, without affecting candidates’ spending limits.
So, while John McCain will be accepting public financing, he’ll also be accepting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of independent expenditure on behalf of his campaign. Technically any coordination between his campaign and the 521s is illegal, but that’s only somewhat relevant to their effectiveness, since everyone’s pretty clear on what the ultimate goal is.
Meanwhile, Barack has demanded that all 521s on the left cease operation and direct their donors to his campaign and to the DNC, subjecting them to stricter limits and preventing double-dipping on his behalf. The upside for him is he gets to control his messaging more tightly. The downside is that he becomes responsible for the messages offered by all his surrogates, who might otherwise be free to use more extreme meme warfare techniques.
[…] Public vs. grassroots campaign financing (part 3) Earlier, I argued that grassroots campaign funding doesn’t really make campaigns more democratic. Public campaign financing is better, but only if it is designed to actually level the playing field. The U.S. federal campaign finance system is not well-designed for this. […]