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.
“We can’t spend as much time on the campaign trail and, frankly, it increases the potential of money having an influence on politics,” Mr. Romney told “Fox News Sunday” last week.
But Mr. McCain’s experience exposed the gap between what a publicly funded candidate could do and what candidates who raised their own money could do in a general election. Analysts said at the beginning of the 2012 campaign that no major candidate could take public money and be viable.
Mr. Obama has spent $270 million, while Mr. Romney has spent $170 million, much of it to fend off intraparty rivals in the primaries.
Public election money comes from voluntarily checking a box on their federal tax form to direct $3 to presidential campaigns. Far fewer people, though, are electing to check the box — in part because of the advent of computer programs that simplify the tax filing process, sometimes not even showing users the box.
“Many people don’t understand that it doesn’t add $3 to your tax burden. It says of the taxes you paid, you’d like to have it go to a specific program,” Mr. Holman said.
Public Citizen has called for removing spending caps and allowing candidates to raise as much as they can, as long as the donations come in small amounts. Donations would be multiplied by federal funds at a higher ratio, such as 3-to-1, allowing overall spending to remain high to prevent candidates from being drowned out by super PACs.
The proposal would take away the partnerships with the national parties — a technique that both the Obama and Romney campaigns have used to collect large donations.
Mr. Obama in 2008 pledged to take part in the public financing system but reversed, becoming the first candidate to opt out of both the primary and general election systems.
He has said he supports the public financing system, but he has not offered his own plan to revamp it.
Now, in the mad dash to outspend each other before the election, neither party is paying much attention to campaign finance reform.
“At this point, it doesn’t stand a chance. We couldn’t even get a hearing on it,” Mr. Holman said.
But that could change if all the money flowing through outside interest groups and candidates this cycle leads to scandal, he added.
“I think Congress may be compelled to revisit this following the election. Americans are just going to be saturated with negative ads, and they’re going to be tired of it.”