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US Presidential campaigns: Is public campaign financing still viable?

Written By | May 26, 2018
US Presidential campaigns and public campaign financing

Image via Pixabay. In the public domain.

WASHINGTON. From time to time, in response to queries via Quora, I contribute a detailed response to a question submitted by someone in the Quora fan base. Questions are often political in nature, and to some extend, attempt to lead the requested answer. I usually avoid these. But some questions seem honest. Like this one. It concerns the seemingly forgotten public campaign financing option for US presidential campaigns.

The question appeared as follows:

How does the US system of public financing of presidential campaigns work?

The following is the essence of my reply, edited and augmented for this column.

How public campaign financing for US Presidential campaigns works

Short answer: Public campaign financing to support candidates in US presidential campaigns is based on a previously implemented (1976), optional $3 check-off (as revised in 1993). The check-off option appears on your IRS 1040 tax filing forms. That’s what’s otherwise known to taxpayers as “the long form.”

By checking off the appropriate box, you are essentially donating $3 from your tax refund to support this fund. You’re entitled to two (2) $3 check-offs if you’re married and filing jointly on the same form.

I am honestly not sure if the check-off is available on the short form. Alas, I haven’t been able to file this one in decades. (Whatever happened to that “Paperwork Reduction Act”?

The way the Feds (actually the Federal Election Commission or FEC) dispenses the funds collected in this manner is to employ them to match the individual taxpayer’s independent contributions to candidates of up to $250 per candidate. These personal donations are, of course, contributed separately.

Presumably, however, the IRS somehow receives documentation on your personal campaign donation totals and can thus verify them to initiate the match. Again, I’m not familiar with the bookkeeping details. But given the political atmosphere over the last couple of decades, I can’t (quite) imagine that the IRS would game this longstanding feature without someone raising a stink about it.

Read also: Mick Mulvaney confirms: Special interests, and lobbyist, drive Washington politics

So what’s the catch for each US Presidential campaign?

The catch to this free money for individual candidates: there are limitations as to which presidential candidates are qualified to get the matching $$$ from the 1040 Presidential campaign check-off. If a given candidate doesn’t meet the qualifications, no matching $$$ from the 1040 check-off pot.

The main qualifications / limitations on Presidential candidates wishing to receive matching funds include the following.

  • Essentially, you have to be deemed a viable candidate of a viable political party to access the public campaign financing match.
  • “Viable parties” include Democrats, Republicans and smaller but recognized parties like the Communists and Libertarians.
  • Just as importantly, you, as a candidate, must limit your maximum campaign war chest to maximums set out in the controlling legislation.

If you want to get down in the weeds with all the fine print and gobbledygook, the FEC has an online publication detailing the entire public campaign financing check-off system. For all the details, in relatively easy-to-read legalese, click on this link:

Is public campaign financing for US Presidential campaigns still viable? Or is the system obsolete?

On a personal note, I actually used to support this fund for years by checking off the boxes on my 1040. The fund seemed like a genuinely innovative way of opening up the Presidential field not only to more candidates within each major party. It also, at least at a campaign’s outset, other candidates from smaller parties into the presidential fray, potentially offering American voters a wider choice than just the traditional binary option.

But if you read the provisions in the link above in detail, you’ll see that the system has become antiquated, due to the rise of PACs, Super PACs and countless other more underhanded yet technically legal ways of pumping funds into the war chests of major political party candidates.

As such, the check-offs, the matches, and the contribution and funding limits in this 1970s legislation no longer reflect the reality of today’s off-the-charts campaign costs. For that reason, I no longer waste my time (or taxpayer $$) on the check off. It’s likely to end up going to the Jill Steins of the world. Why would I want to help in that endeavor.

Those 1970s and /or 1990s-based limitations are typically the reason why recent Presidential candidates of both major political parties have begun to waive participation in the public check off campaign system. By not participating, such candidates are not subject to the severe public campaign finance limitations the original law (as amended) imposes. Neither Clinton nor Trump used public funds in the 2016 presidential race. Obviously, neither of them wanted to be limited in the amount of outside funds they could raise.

The never-ending campaign

The reason for this, unfortunately, is compelling. U.S. Presidential campaigning in the 21stCentury has turned into a 24/7, 365 days per year phenomenon. Extremists on both the political left and right in this country might find they agree with my most recent observation on this. Namely, that the 2020 Presidential campaign commenced early on the morning of November 9, 2016 when the electoral victory of Donald J. Trump in Election 2016 was clinched.

Given the sad reality of the now endless American Presidential campaign, the public funding system for U.S. Presidential campaigns is essentially an anachronism as it currently exists. That’s too bad.

Initially, the check-off and matching funds appeared to be a very good, democratic (small “d”), egalitarian idea. But the gaping loopholes in our campaign laws quickly made this gesture obsolete. Even the brazenly partisan Washington Post acknowledged this in a February 206 article entitled

Public campaign funding is so broken that candidates turned down $292 million in free money

Is the $3 presidential matching fund check-off dead?

Is there a better way?

Both major parties continue to pay lip service to limitations on campaign donations. Yet each party continues to push limitations that would hurt their opponents while strengthening their own collective hand.

It’s here that the Brits have long had a better idea. When a general election is called, parties quickly put up their candidates and the wild rumpus begins. But it lasts approximately 5 weeks, and you can only spend so much in 5 weeks.

The British government, however, operates under a parliamentary system as opposed to the U.S. Presidential free-for-all as it currently exists. But the UK’s shorter campaign tradition offers a way to limit the role of mega-$$$ (or mega-£££) in national contests.

That shortened British campaign season in and of itself would naturally limit the money spent on such campaigns. That’s because it essentially limite -by time – how much advertising time and space a campaign can buy in a short period of time. It’s a thought, anyway. Perhaps we should re-open discussions on this issue. Perhaps we can succeed in sparing American elections – and the American people – from future political apathy and exhaustion. #

—Headline image via Pixabay. In the public domain.



Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17