Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Public Financing, Dead?

John McCain sure thinks so. And that isn't that much of a stretch. [Truth be told, that isn't a stretch at all.]

But as Jay Cost said yesterday over at the HorseRaceBlog, it really isn't as simple as Obama opting out broke the system. The seeds for this were sewn all the way back in 1980 when John Connally shunned the public financing system to go-it-alone in his bid for the Republican nomination. Of course, his $11 million raised (just more than $28 million in 2009 dollars) earned one whole delegate, but the idea was out there. Candidates for office, especially the presidency, could out-raised the matching funds cap, not have to adhere to state spending caps (during the primaries) and be much better off because of it.

Now, Connally's tremendous failure was an example that certainly caused many a presidential campaign pause, but by 1996 the system had (really) outgrown its usefulness. A self-financed candidate like Steve Forbes could enter the fray and make waves without any real political experience. That his efforts and the competition from others in the Republican field that year put Dole at a major disadvantage once the Kansas senator wrapped up the nomination was a lesson to future candidates on both sides of the aisle. In other words, if your gauge is pointing to E at the end of the primary phase and your opponent's (especially an incumbent) is not, then your bid for the White House is going to be that much tougher.

And that lesson was extended to the general election campaign last fall. No candidate can put him or herself behind such a financial eight ball and hope to wind up in the Oval Office.

H/t: John Pitney over at Epic Journey for the Cost link. Good stuff.

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