How does the public funding program treat independents?
The law does not even mention independent candidates. That posed a problem for the FEC in 1980, when Representative John
Anderson (R-IL) ran as an independent. He sought post-election reimbursement for his campaign costs, but insisted his campaign committee was not a party and that he did not intend to start one. Commissioners of both parties agreed that independent candidates should not be excluded from the public campaign fund, but the only way they could do that was to treat them as parties. Which is what they did with Anderson, who won more than 5 percent of the vote in the general election and was reimbursed with public funds.18
Then there was Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who bought his way into the public funding system. As one of many third-party candidates who run presidential campaigns they have no hope of winning, Perot could be just another footnote to our political history. But he is important here because he was rich enough to take advantage of a program intended to open presidential elections to donors and politicians who were not rich.
Perot spent more than $68 million of his own money running for president in 1992, making it the most expensive third-party or independent campaign to date. He also got an impressive 18.9 percent of the popular vote, the best showing by any outside presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive in 1912.19
Perot refused to call himself the candidate of a party in 1992, but in 1996 he changed his mind. He spent $8.5 million of his own money to create the Reform Party and ensure he was nominated as its candidate. The FEC agreed to treat the new party as an existing one based on Perot's share of the 1992 vote, and gave him a public funding grant for the 1996 general election. He did not get as many votes this time around, but he got enough to qualify the Reform Party for public funds in 2000.20
Most third parties are little more than the campaign committees of their candidates, and they disappear after those candidates are defeated. Like those other third parties, the Reform Party was little more than Perot's campaign committee, and it too effectively fell apart after Perot decided not to run again. The Reform Party might not have been a real party, but thanks to what Perot had been able to buy with his own fortune in 1992 and 1996, it became something just as valuable under the FECA: a name worth millions of taxpayer dollars in 2000.
The shaky state of the Reform Party became clear when its 2000 convention ended with two men claiming to have won the nomination. The FEC eventually recognized Patrick Buchanan, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, as the party's candidate. Buchanan, who had tried several times to win the GOP nomination, qualified by being on the ballot in thirteen states. He got less than 1 percent of the popular vote, putting a delayed end to Perot's old campaign committee by making the Reform Party ineligible for federal funds in 2004. Anderson, Perot, and Buchanan are so far the only third-party or independent candidates to receive general-election funds under the public financing program.21