June 23, 2008

Financing Obama and McCain

After the American Century

From abroad, the cost of American elections is unbelievable, appalling. In 2008 more than $1 billion will be spent just on the presidential primaries and general election. But I will spare readers a sermon on this matter. The media world has been actively discussing Senator Obama's decision not to accept public financing, established back in the 1970s to eliminate fund-raising and create a level playing-field. It has never worked well, but it seemed a step in the right direction. All along Obama has refused to accept any money from lobbyists (in contrast to McCain), but he apparently accepted the idea that campaigns should be financed by the government. Taking public money means accepting a cap on spending, however, and Obama has found that he can raise vast sums from private donors. He does not need public financing, which would cap his spending.

Obama is the first candidate who has understood how to use the Internet to reach potential donors, and to involve them in his campaign as partners. Anyone who gives begins to receive a regular stream of emails with information about campaign events, opportunities to join others in raising money, and chances to meet fellow supporters (both on-line or in person). So while Obama himself seldom needs to eat a rubber chicken and make a speech in person, the virtual Obama has been prodigiously successful at eliciting donations. By comparison, McCain is computer illiterate. For more on how Obama raises money, see Joshua Green, "The Amazing Money Machine" The Atlantic.com Alternately, give Obama $10 or more and you can experience it first-hand.

Obama presented his campaign funding decision not as a change of heart about campaign reform, nor as a proof of his on-line wizardry, but as a recognition that the public financing of campaigns has not worked. It has not worked because it is too easy for an "independent" group to raise money and spend it lavishly to help a candidate, who thereby can get both the public financing and the benefits of private funds. Anyone who looks at how John Kerry was "swift-boated" in 2004 knows that this is true, yet a surprising number of commentators, such as John Brooks in the New York Times, are taking Obama to task. They want him to play by the Washington rule book. But he has decided not to work with an ill-conceived, broken system.

Fortunately for Obama, most voters seem to agree with him. Indeed, his fellow Democrats are most likely to be upset that he has abandoned public support, while Republicans have never supported it much. So the decision might even help him with swing voters. In any case, subsequent polls have not detected any loss of support since he decided not to take public money. In fact, most voters are not that interested in the issue. Americans generally do not mind if a candidate says he is independent, can stand on his own, needs no assistance, or is individualistic.

The irony is that for decades the Republicans have always been better at fund-raising that the Democrats. McCain is the first GOP presidential candidate I can remember that has had trouble getting contributors. That is what derailed him last year, when it looked like his campaign was over, due to near bankruptcy. Even now that he has been the nominee for months, he has raised less money than either Obama or Clinton. As of May 31, McCain had raised $121 million, only a little more than Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the race long ago. By comparison, Hillary Clinton barnstormed for $221 million by the same date, and yet had run out of funds even as she lost the nomination to Obama.

By the end of May the Senator from Illinois had put together contributions of $295 million, all of it from small donors. He has also shown good financial management, keeping costs under control. He has a rather tidy surplus, too, with $43 million in cash at the end of the primary cycle. McCain was almost as well off, however, because he sewed up his nomination much sooner and could use far less of his money against fellow Republicans. At the end of May he therefore had $31 million - less than Obama, but not so much less.

So no one should be surprised that Obama has decided not to subject himself to the restrictions of public financing, when he does not need it. That leaves the Internet-challenged John McCain to take the government handout, like a charity recipient, because he has not been able to motivate his base.