Large Donors Dominate Campaign Despite Obama's Success
Nationwide - The tidal wave of money flowing into the presidential campaign is a powerful demonstration of the need for fundamental changes in the way we fund our elections, not proof of the health of the private contribution system as some commentators suggest. Candidates will spend $5.3 billion to get elected, and raise the vast majority of those funds from large donors seeking their favor, according to statistics from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Less noted is the success of the Clean Elections programs, or full public financing, that have been implemented in seven states and two cities. Clean Elections is a popular and proven policy and the poll numbers and participation rates prove it. Elections in these Clean Elections states have become about voters and ideas instead of the endless campaign money chase.
Experts concur that the partial presidential public financing system, created immediately following the Watergate scandals of the 1970's, has become outdated and obsolete. In his 2000 campaign, President George W. Bush (R) became the first president ever to opt out of the system during the primary phase. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) may have sealed its fate by opting out of the partial program for both the primary and general campaigns. He's raised more than $600 million through September, about $70 million less than the $674 million that all the Democratic and Republican candidates raised in the 2004 presidential campaign, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
Some have gone as far to imply that public financing of elections is a dead idea because of Obama's success. But that's far from the case. Sen. Obama is the exception, not the rule.
The danger is to take Obama's ability to generate so much of his funds from small donors and use it to justify our current campaign finance practices where big donors rule. For instance, Obama has raised about 50 percent of his funds in donations of $200 or less, according to both the Campaign Finance Institute and the Center for Responsive Politics.
In comparison, donations of $200 or less accounted for 31 percent of the funds of Democratic rival Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and 32 percent of those of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). In the 2004 election, President Bush raised 31 percent of his money from these smaller donations.
Candidates for the U.S. House raised only 10 percent of their funds from donations of $200 or less through March 31 in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. That's down from 15 percent at the same time in the 2000 election cycle. The shift occurred as candidates raised more money for campaigns, $446,770 in 2008 compared with $298,729 in 2000.
This year, big money donors have become more important. In the current election cycle, donations of $1,000 or more accounted for 35 percent of individual contributions compared with 23 percent in the 2000 election cycle. Put another way, donors of $1,000 or more account for more than a third of the giving in this year's House election while the under $200 donations account for a tenth of the tally.
Not all Senate candidates report their funding electronically making comparisons for the current cycle problematic. In the 2000 election U.S. Senate candidates raised $552.5 million, and 28 percent came through donations under $200. In the off-year 2006 Senate election, candidates raised $562.3 million and 16 percent came through donations of $200 or less. The difference again was the rise of individual contributions of $1,000 or more, accounting for 40 percent of contributions in 2006, compared with 26 percent in 2000.
Put another way, from 2000 to 2006 the value of donations under $200 shrank by 42 percent while the money from donations of $1,000 or greater grew by over half.
The numbers make it clear: in general, big contributors fuel the campaign arms race. Candidates who are serious about winning are forced to spend ever more time soliciting contributions from wealthy donors and deep-pocketed interest groups, bypassing, or outright ignoring, the vast majority of citizens.
Many citizens and candidates see that this system is broken. There's an alternative.
Clean Elections systems have been adopted in seven states and two cities. Candidates running a Clean Elections campaign must go out and get a set number of modest donations-usually five dollars-from people in their community in order to qualify for a grant. Once qualified, the Clean Elections candidate adheres to strict spending limits and stops accepting private contributions. That means the donation from the teacher, factory worker or coffee barista is as important as the one from the corporate CEO.
It should come as no surprise that Clean Elections has proven popular where it has been implemented. In Connecticut, 75 percent of statehouse candidates are running under the program, remarkable considering this is the first general election during which Clean Elections were in effect. In Arizona, 9 out of 11 statewide officeholders, including Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-Ariz.), have run and won under this new approach. Maine implemented the system in 2000 and today 84 percent of its legislature is elected using the Clean Elections program.
Capitol Hill is considering the concept too. A bipartisan, bicameral bill, called the Fair Elections Now Act, has been introduced in the Senate by Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and in the House by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.)
The Clean Elections system puts the focus on ideas and direct communication with voters, a welcome contrast to the current grab the cash and dash approach of big money races. By requiring candidates to raise a large number of small donations to qualify for funds, it brings ordinary citizens back into elections and reduces the need to raise ever larger amounts of money. That appeals both to voters and to candidates.
Obama is a phenomenon in generating tremendous involvement from those who have walked away from or never participated in elections. But his success doesn't mean the problem with money in politics has evaporated. On the contrary, the fundraising statistics show that our money driven system has become more reliant on big donations.
The excitement Obama has generated has brought in an unprecedented number of small contributors. It's time to build on that civic engagement and super charge the role of small donors in other races as well by implementing Clean Elections systems nationally.