What would it take to make the White House wannabees stop chasing after big donors? From 1975 to 1999, the answer was federal matching funds — money that candidates could get by raising more money from small donors and spending less time schmoozing with the well-heeled.
Now, the U.S. PIRG, or Public Interest Research Group, Education Fund, an advocate of more limits on campaign money, has produced a model of how that would affect the early stages of the 2016 race. The analysis assumes a 6-to-1 match, so the match would turn a $200 contribution into $1,400 for the candidate.
First the results, then the caveats.
- The big winner — Sen. Bernie Sanders. In the first half of 2015, he got 77 percent of his money in small contributions, that is, $200 or less. Hillary Clinton raised about three-and-a-half times as much as Sanders, but just 13 percent came from small contributions. With matching funds, Sanders would end up with $83 million, Clinton with $89 million.
- The big loser — Republican Jeb Bush. He would be the only contender to come out with less money. It reflects the top-heavy profile of Bush's fundraising: 88 percent of his money came from donors who gave $2,700, the legal limit. Republicans who would benefit most are Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Intriguing as this might be, the analysis is far from ironclad.
SuperPACs: For one thing, it doesn't take into consideration superPACs. Every major candidate but Sanders has at least one backing them (that they endorse). SuperPACs have no contribution limits.
A theoretical system with matching funds could also theoretically ban superPACs. But here in 2015, Bush raised $11 million for his campaign committee, and $103 million was raised for the superPAC. In most of the presidential campaigns, the small donors to the candidate's committee look a lot like window dressing.
There are cost-benefit questions: For the 12 candidates, who have reported their fundraising so far, the analysis estimates that $307 million in matching funds would have displaced $65 million in contributions greater than $200. Advocates of public financing say no one can gauge the true benefit: how many federal dollars would be saved if big donors had less sway over lawmakers.
Public financing is a long, long way from reality: The Watergate-era system was abandoned twice, first by candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries, and then by candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 general-election campaign. It's not going to be resurrected — at least not in the short term.
Matching funds programs are included in comprehensive campaign-finance bills proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. They're better designed than the old presidential system. But unlike the 1970s — or even 2002, when the McCain-Feingold bill became law — campaign finance has become a partisan issue. The epithet, "welfare for politicians," likely still has some punch.
This isn't to say the matching-funds idea should be ignored. The winning candidates this cycle are expected to spend well over $1 billion each. The influence of big money is a frequent topic on the campaign trail. And it's worth exploring what a different system might look like.