by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Public financing of presidential campaigns is on life support, and it’s time to pull the plug.
This week, Senator Jeff Flake issued his latest list of wasteful federal spending, which noted that $1 million in taxpayer money went to a long-shot presidential campaign that most Americans have already forgotten.
You may have noticed that check box on your income-tax return, inviting you to direct $3 of your federal tax bill to a government-managed fund that matches the money raised by presidential candidates who meet certain criteria and accept spending limits. Checking the box has no effect on the amount of taxes owed, but the program is not popular: just 6 percent of taxpayers opted in in 2013.
That government fund isn’t running out of money, though, because most serious candidates forego matching funds, calculating that they can raise more without the spending limits. This wasn’t always the case; if you hate the idea of taxpayer money being spent on presidential campaigns, you can thank Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed supporter of public financing, for inadvertently making it look like a loser’s bet.
From 1976 until 2008, most major-party candidates participated in the program; in 2008, Barack Obama became the first major candidate to reject public funding in the general election, calling his huge network of donors a “parallel public-financing system.” Obama went on to outspend opponent John McCain, who took the matching funds, four to one, and win the election going away.
In 2016, primary candidates were eligible for a maximum payment of $24 million from the campaign fund, but had to agree to limit total expenditures to less than $58 million. If a major-party candidate chose to accept public funds in the general election in 2016, the total payment from the FEC would have been $96 million. That sum is chump change in a world where Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent $576 million.