True, money isn't everything. Gov. Mitt Romney vastly outspend his GOP rivals only to bow out after a meager showing in the preliminary contests, not to mention Tsunami Tuesday, Feb. 5. But, it is necessary to remain a top-tier competitor. Ask Sen. John Edwards, whose underfunded campaign ended shortly after losing in his birth state of SC. He banked all of his spartan resources on Iowa, only to come up short, and the spigot remained dry afterward. He even signed up for federal matching funds, which limit spending on a state-by-state basis, but provide a dollar-for-dollar match of funds raised privately up to these established ceilings.
Matching funds are a relic of the three-decades old campaign finance reforms passed in the wake of Watergate. The set amounts offered, and limits by state are hopelessly outdated in the wake of inflation, not a mention a frontloaded primary calendar that makes small states like Iowa and NH disproportionately influential. State-by-state caps fail to account for these disparities.
Since 2000, therefore, we have seen the most formidable presidential candidates refuse matching funds in both the primary and general elections. Under current law, candidates are free to raise $2,300 from individual donors for both the primary and general election contests, and must disclose the names of all donors who contribute more than $250. These limits, updated with the McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002, are another legacy of Nixonian abuses.
Opponents contend that limits on personal financial contributions to political candidates are abuses of the First Amendment right to free speech, where money is equated with political speech. Supporters suggest that limits are necessary to remove the appearance of corruption from the political process, and the Supreme Court has generally agreed. However, its landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision did strike down spending limits on candidates due to First Amendment concerns.
This leads us to our current conundrum. The First Amendment/ appearance of corruption paradigm is hopelessly outdated. This is illustrated in the Freedom Museum's conference report titled "Civic Disengagement in Our Democracy." It argues that we need to move beyond this stale argument to address the needs of the status quo. Full disclosure of campaign donors might be coupled with more relaxed limits, and the public financing system must be updated so that it is again attractive to leading contenders.
At the same time, we must face the realities of 2008. While corruption is not likely systemic, the appearance of it is nonetheless widespread. The developments of the past week are particularly disturbing. Taxpayers for Common Sense issued a study of 2007 congressional earmarks. Among the top-tier presidential candidates, Clinton received more than $342 million in earmarks for her constituents, ranking in the top-five in her party and ninth among all senators. Obama, by comparison, captured a paltry $92 million for the Prairie State, though one of the earmarks was directed toward the hospital that employed his wife.
What is most disturbing about earmarks beyond their cost is the fact that they often involve projects or contracts that benefit companies and individuals who are also sources of campaign donations.
Candidates themselves can be sources of campaign cash for their comrades. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, both Clinton and Obama greased the wheels of superdelegates with regular campaign contributions over the past several years. As it appears likely that these non-elected representatives of the Democratic Party will determine the standard-bearer this summer, one can't help but conclude that the nomination may go to the highest bidder.
Perhaps the most disturbing news of the past week was word of a broken promise. Sen. McCain has already committed to using public financing, $85 million in total, for the general election campaign this fall if his Democratic opponent agrees to do the same. Obama made a similar promise last fall, but last week distanced himself from his word and said that he would have to consult his campaign on the matter. The junior IL senator is certainly a prolific fundraiser, and would likely outdistance his GOP rival by a significant sum, but isn't principle more important here as both candidates seek to restore faith in democracy and the federal government?
What are we as citizens to do about an election awash in greenbacks? Begin by following the mighty dollar. The Federal Election Commission tabulates quarterly filings by candidates and offers an eye into who is backing who in the money chase.
Pressure candidates to accept federal matching funds for the general election.
Write a letter to your representatives urging them to update existing campaign finance laws to account for changes to the primary schedule and the time value of money (note: it's continually diminishing).
Even consider contributing to an underfunded campaign based on principle, especially those who refuse to take money from registered lobbyists or "bundlers" (those who actively solicit and "bundle" contributors from friends and colleagues).
Ultimately, how about voting for a candidate that sticks to his or her guns on these issues? Send a message to our candidates that democracy is not for sale!