By Brendan J. Doherty
6:00 AM CST, November 4, 2012
As President Barack Obama recently headlined the last of a record-breaking number of fundraisers for his reelection bid, it is important to understand that the extraordinary rise in presidential fundraising efforts in recent decades is an unintended consequence of our campaign finance system and that these dynamics are changing the ways that presidents allocate their most precious resource for both campaigning and governing: their time.
President Obama's 220 fundraisers for the Obama Victory Fund, a joint committee benefiting both the Obama-Biden reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee, exceed the combined total of 208 fundraisers headlined by his five immediate predecessors for their reelection campaigns and national committees in their third and fourth years in office: 86 by George W. Bush; 70 by Bill Clinton; 24 by George H.W. Bush; three by Ronald Reagan; and 25 by Jimmy Carter. This rise in the time devoted to fundraising is a multi-president story. Mr. Clinton far outpaced George H.W. Bush's reelection fundraising, George W. Bush broke Mr. Clinton's records, and now Mr. Obama has eclipsed Mr. Bush's efforts. Why?
Ironically, campaign finance laws designed to limit the role of money in our electoral system have actually increased the incentive for presidents to spend more and more of their time fundraising. In order to pay for rising campaign costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars with contributions that are limited by law to the low thousands, presidents have dedicated increasing amounts of time to fundraising out of political necessity. The irrelevance of the public financing system, which for decades held down the amount of money raised and spent by presidential campaigns by offering public money in exchange for voluntary spending limits, has accelerated these dynamics. While qualifying for public funding was once an indication of a candidate's legitimacy, the accompanying spending limits are now insufficient to mount a winning campaign for the White House.
Public financing's slide to irrelevancy has unfolded over the past four presidential elections, as successive candidates have decided that accepting public funds was not in their best interests, and their opponents have followed suit. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush became the first eventual nominee to decline matching funds during the nominating process because the spending limit of $40.5 million that accompanied the public money would have hamstrung his campaign efforts against Steve Forbes, who had spent $37 million of his own money in a 1996 presidential bid and seemed ready to exceed that amount in 2000. Mr. Bush would raise more than $95 million on his way to the GOP nomination. In 2004, John Kerry followed Mr. Bush's lead, as for the first time both major-party nominees opted out of public financing for the nominating process. The spending cap that year for those accepting matching funds was $44.8 million; Mr. Bush raised almost $270 million, while Mr. Kerry raised close to $235 million. It is clear why matching funds had lost their appeal.
In 2008, Mr. Obama became the first major-party nominee to forgo public funding for both the nominating and general election stages. Had he participated in the public financing system, he would have been limited to spending $50.5 million during the nominating process, in addition to the $84.1 million he would have received for the general election. In return, he would have had to agree not to raise and spend additional funds for his own campaign after his party's convention. Instead, he proceeded to raise $745 million. Republican nominee John McCain opted out of matching funds at the nominating stage but accepted public money for the general election, leaving him with far fewer financial resources than his Democratic opponent in the final months of the campaign.
In 2012, for first time, neither major-party nominee has participated in the public funding program at either stage of the election, as the spending limits of the program now fall far short of what is required to run an effective presidential campaign. The prospect of super PACs raising money in increments in the millions places even more pressure on presidents and candidates to devote more time to raising money in the relatively small increments laid out by campaign finance law.
What are the consequences of the rise in importance of presidential fundraising? Recent presidents have begun their reelection fundraising earlier and earlier in their term, opening each to increasing criticism that he is forgoing governing for the sake of campaigning, as fundraising diverts his attention from his official duties as president. Additionally, fundraising now continues long after the national party conventions, changing the ways that presidents and candidates allocate their time. Post-convention fundraising efforts by Mr. Obama in California and New York and by Mr. Romney in New York, California, Texas and Utah led them to spend time in electorally uncompetitive states, drawing both nominees away from key Electoral College battlegrounds like Ohio, Virginia and Florida.
Each party has been quick to criticize increased fundraising by presidents of the other party, but it is important to understand that the rules of our political system drive these dynamics. Unless the contribution limits are raised substantially or the public financing system for presidential elections is revamped, campaign finance legislation that sought to restrict the role of money in electoral politics will continue to lead presidents and candidates to devote more and more of their scarcest and most valuable asset — their time — to fundraising.
Brendan J. Doherty is an associate professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy and author of the new book, "The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign." This analysis represents his own views and not those of the Naval Academy. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.