In 1974 Congress authorized public funding for presidential nomination campaigns. Public funding was crucial to Jimmy Carter’s nomination in 1976 and to Ronald Reagan’s nearly successful campaign the same year, and continued to be an important factor in presidential nomination contests for more than two decades after that. But no major candidate has used the program since 2004. Due the program’s built-in limitations, changes in the nomination process, and campaign finance developments, the program is completely irrelevant today.
It has been argued that the program isn’t really needed. Although one argument for public funding is that promotes electoral competition the 2008 races in both parties and the 2016 Democratic nomination were hotly contested, and the races for the 2012 and 2016 Republican nominations and the current 2020 Democratic campaign have had record numbers of candidates. A second goal of public funding is to reduce the clout of large donors, but the last several elections have been marked by a sharply increased role for small-dollar donors. Nonetheless, the current private-funding system continues to pose major barriers to entry. Although small donations have grown, the volume of very large donations has grown as well, and big donors, big-donor-funded Super PACs, and wealthy self-funded candidates have a disproportionate role in nomination campaign finance.
This chapter reviews the history of the presidential nomination public funding program, its initial impact and the reasons for its subsequent collapse. It then examines the state and local public funding systems that have drawn the participation of viable candidates, and increased both competitiveness and the role of small donors. Based on the lessons of the failed federal system and the successful state and local ones, it sketches out the reasons for and the elements of a re-born presidential nomination public funding program.
A Better Financing System? The Death – and Possible Rebirth – of the Presidential Nomination Public Financing Program,
The Best Candidate: Presidential Nomination in Polarized Times, Eugene D. Mazo & Michael R. Dimino, Eds., Cambridge University Press, 2020; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-645
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/2590