Taxpayer funding for campaigns all but dead

Candidates avoid cap so millions can roll in

President Obama and Mitt Romney agree on at least one way to reduce federal spending: Both candidates have decided to forgo public funds to finance their campaigns.

It marks the first time that the major candidates have refused taxpayers’ cash from start to finish, and likely signals the end of “public financing,” the system of taxpayer-funded campaigns designed to separate potentially corrupting special interests from presidential elections.

It was only four years ago when candidate Barack Obama broke precedent — and a campaign promise — when he turned down public financing and relied instead on his enormous fundraising prowess for spending on the general election.

His opponent, John McCain, did take public funds, which limited him to $84 million.

That model is over, campaign finance specialists say.

The system of taxpayer-funded elections “currently is dead,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the money-in-politics watchdog group Public Citizen. “No serious presidential candidate is opting into the public financing any longer.”

Taxpayers fund two different public financing systems: one for the primaries, which doles out matching funds, and one for the general election, which turns over a lump sum to the nominees of the major parties.

Last week, Green Party candidate Jil Stein received $100,000. This cycle, only fringe candidates Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson also haveapplied for primary funding.

Four years ago, nine candidates applied for matching funds in the primaries.

To qualify for primary election money, candidates must raise $5,000 from at least 20 states. Each person’s donation must count for no more than $250. That money will be doubled with taxpayer funds — if the candidate agrees not to spend more than $46 million in the primaries, distributed among the states according to population.

Under the federal rules, once Democrats and Republicans crown their nominees at the summer conventions, they are eligible for $91 million in public financing for the general election. But they would not be able to raise and spend money from individuals and political action committees.

The caps clearly hurt the McCain campaign in 2008.

In June 2008, the first month that it was clear who both parties’ nominees would be, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain each spent about $25 million. But in the critical month of October, Mr. Obama spent $140 million as he raised money relentlessly, while Mr. McCain spent $44 million, struggling to spread out the limited money he was allowed to spend under the public financing rules.

The purpose of public funding is to deter politicians from catering to moneyed supporters, leaving the winner, the thinking goes, less beholden to major backers.

Mr. Romney also noted that while he had to refuse public money to compete with Mr. Obama, it cuts into his time with voters.

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