Presidential Public Financing Failure

The push is on to revamp and re-fund the public financing of presidential campaigns. 

Brad Smith and Robert Bauer have raised a number of doubts about the presidential system. A while ago, I wrote a policy analysis examining the effects of the presidential system. My new book, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, extends that argument.

Here I focus on one question:

The 1976 campaign finance law provided generous subsidies to presidential candidates pursuing party nominations and running in the general election. You would think that the availability of public money would increase the absolute number of candidates for the presidency compared to elections prior to 1976. Has the presidential system led to more candidates for the presidency, more choices for voters, and more competition for the highest office?

Apart from the major party candidates, nine presidential candidates in the general elections since 1948 have received more than 1 percent of the total vote in an election. Five of those candidates ran after the presidential system was created in 1976. Not all five accepted public financing. Ross Perot did not accept taxpayer financing in 1992, preferring to spend $65 million of his own money on his candidacy. Ed Clark, the Libertarian candidate in 1980, also did not take taxpayer financing. 

In all, six of the nine non-major party candidates who have made a mark in presidential elections since 1948 ran their campaigns without the help of the taxpayer. Moreover, the two top vote-getters during the period — George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 — made do without subsidies.

The presidential system might be credited with three additional presidential campaigns in seven general elections (Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1996, and John Anderson in 1980). Nader received 2.7 percent of the vote, Perot got 8.4 percent, and Anderson obtained 6.6 percent. None of those candidates received a single electoral vote.

I wrote that the system “might be credited.” We should not conclude that because those candidates did use public money, they would not have made their races if the presidential system had not given them money. The private system in place in the seven general elections prior to 1976 produced four serious candidates apart from the major party candidates. Had the system not been enacted, Nader, Perot, and Anderson might also have raised enough money to challenge the major party candidates.

What about the party nominations? Most of the money paid out by the presidential system has gone to fund the conventions of the two major political parties (10 percent of all funding) and the major parties’ candidates in the general election (61 percent of all funding).

Candidates running in the primaries have received a little over $506 million, or about 29 percent of all outlays by the presidential system. That money has funded 83 candidates in the primaries. Of those, 71 were candidates for the nominations of the two major political parties. Of those 71, 55 candidates received over 1 percent of the total number of votes cast in a party’s presidential primaries for a given year, an average of 7.8 candidates each presidential election.

How does that compare with the number of primary candidates prior to the presidential funding system? The seven elections prior to 1976 included an average of 10.7 candidates in the party primaries. If we measure competitiveness by entry into a race, the years prior to public subsidy of presidential campaigns seem somewhat more competitive than the years after 1974. 

What’s the verdict? U.S. taxpayers have given candidates almost $2 billion to campaign for the presidency. That money has not bought more choice in the party primaries or in general presidential elections.