Did public funding meet its goal of bringing in new, small donors?

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund did meet that goal. About 80 percent of the tens of millions of people who used the checkoff did not make any other contribution, either individually or through an organization.22 Checkoff donors also looked more like the general population than the kinds of donors who made contributions to candidates or parties. Most donors who made contributions of $200 or more were well-educated, middle-aged to elderly conservative Republicans who were in the highest income decile. Most checkoff donors were younger, less well educated, moderate-t o-l iberal Democrats, and only about 10 percent of them had incomes in the highest decile.23

Taxpayer participation in the checkoff was at its highest in the years after Watergate. Participation was 27.5 percent in 1976, the year of the first publicly funded presidential election, and went up to just under 29 percent in 1980. Eventually, though, the program began losing the strong public support it had enjoyed at the start. Taxpayer participation fell steadily, dropping below 20 percent by 1989 and below 15 percent by 1993.24

Worried that there would not be enough money in the fund to finance the 1996 presidential election, Congress increased the checkoff from $1 to $3 in 1993. That provided the fund with enough money for the 1996 election, but the number of checkoff donors continued to decline. The shrinking size of the fund made candidates give serious consideration to opting out of the program, which they began to do in 2000.25

Even now, though, when the program can no longer provide even partial subsidies for presidential campaigns, it is still bringing in small donors. Only 5.4 percent of tax returns used the checkoff in 2015, which was the lowest participation rate in the program's history. But those returns sent $30 million into the fund, which means that several million taxpayers continue to make very small contributions.26

 
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